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Baseball: NOT a FINISH – Cajuns look at Regional as start to success

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, June 4, 2013

When the UL baseball team’s bus drove away from Baton Rouge late Sun­day night, having just been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament with a 5-1 Regional loss to LSU, the feeling was fa­miliar for Ragin’ Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux.


It was early June in 1999, and UL has just lost a best-of-threeNCAASuper Re­gional to Rice at the Astrodome in Hous­ton.


One year later, the Cajuns were play­ing in Omaha at the CollegeWorld Series – the only time they’ve been there.


“I really like our team,” Robichaux said Sunday.


“They remind me a lot of the team that we took to Omaha in 2000. In ’99, we battled Rice. … The next fall, when we cameback, wehad a lotmoreexperience in getting there.”


Now the 2013 Cajuns – 43-20 after los­ing to Southland Conference regular­season champ Sam Houston State in their Regional opener Friday, rebound­ing to beat SWAC Tournament-champ Jackson State in an elimination game Saturday and beating Sam Houston State in another elimination game earlier Sunday, and finally falling to No. 4 national seed LSU on Sunday night – are a club with postseason experience.


They’ll lose just two seniors, Kendall Mayer and Ben Frith, relief pitchers who combined for only 33.1 innings over 26 appearances this season.


They could also lose one or more – catcher Michael Strentz, right-fielder Dex Kjerstad and centerfielder Seth Harrison are the top prospects – to this week’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.


But most of the team should return intact, and that had Robichaux toting high expectations for 2014 on the ride back to Lafayette. “These guys right here have a lot of experience,” Robichaux said with a glance to Jace Conrad, Caleb Adams and Cody Boutte at the postgame interview table. “And you’ve got to have experience,” he added, “to be able to push through this next step, which I really believe we can do next season with these guys.” That next step: A return trip to Omaha.


The Cajuns set out this season with that as their goal, but Robichaux seemed to sense all along that this season would amount to seasoning for the main course next year. “After last season (when UL finished 23-30 and failed to even qualify for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament), there were some people that had left our team,” Conrad said. “You had some people, fans, that never thought Omaha was even an option for this team.”

But the sophomore second-baseman/firstbaseman added, “We worked so hard (last) fall.” “I can guarantee you we worked harder than any team in this country,” Conrad said. “We worked so hard (last) fall just to get back to this point right here – just being able to taste it, just being able to feel it. We were this close. It gives us the reassurance that Omaha is possible, and that’s where we’ll be next year.”


Anticipated improved pitching depth should help the cause. So too should the realization of shortcomings at the plate – even for ateam that went into the Regional leading the nation in home runs with 72 and in slugging percentage – that Cajuns hitters experienced in Baton Rouge and understand they need to overcome. UL pounded out 15 runs and 19 hits against Jackson State. But it managed just four hits Friday against Sam Houston State, which started unpredictable Cody Dickson, and just three on Sunday against LSU. “Friday night they (the Bearkats) threw a lefty who was really wild. He’d go up,” Conrad said of Dickson. “In fact, I got hit twice.… Shugg (Tyler Girouard) got hit twice.


“(Dickson) would come way out of the zone and then paint the corners. That’s hard to hit. You don’t know where the ball is going – and he’d surprise you with a ball on the outside corner. Same thing on the inside corner. Then you’d get a breaking ball over. That’s just hard to deal with.”


LSU started a slowthrowing lefty, also hard-to-hit Brent Bonvillain.

“He pitched for a national championship at the junior-college level, so we just felt good about going back out with him,” Robichaux said. “We felt he was the one guy on our staff that had enough starting experience to handle (the) crowd, and just get us off to a good start.” Against Jackson State, UL threw sophomore No. 1 starter Austin Robichaux – the coach’s son. He struck out eight while allowing justonerunover 8.0 innings. “Austin… has Regional experience now,” Tony Robichaux said. “This is big for us. “The pitchers did a great job,” he added. “They really did.”


LAGNIAPPE: Austin Robichaux produced the best pitching record at 9-2 (with a 3.05 ERA) and Mayer had the lowest ERA at 1.31 in 20.2 innings. … Kjerstad ended up as UL’s top hitter at .388, and followed by Girouard at .360. … Designated- hitter Adams, third among top Cajun hitters by average at .339, just ahead of Harrison (.338), finished with a team-high 16 home runs and a teamhigh 55 RBIs. … Six Cajuns finished with seven or more homers: Adams, Kjerstad (12), Harrison (nine), Dylan Butler (eight), Strentz (seven) and Girouard (seven).

“That’s something we might have to work on next season – being more consistentwiththe different types of pitchers,” Conrad said. “That’s something we’re gonna work on next fall and get better at.”


Cajun starting pitchers, meanwhile, will just have to work on more of the same.


Robichaux knew his team was thin on arms all season, but ultimately more was squeezed out of the staff than perhaps even he thought was possible.


UL opened with sometimes- starter, sometimes- reliever Ryan Wilson on Friday, and he had a solid five innings in a 4-2 loss to SHSU during which Cajun hitters had that hard time. Cody Boutte struggled at the start of Sunday’s first against Sam Houston State and lasted only 1.2 innings. But Robichaux went back to him to open the LSU game and Boutte – who transferred to UL from LSU-Eunice – was strong early in front of 10,000-plus at Alex Box Stadium, opening with four straight scoreless innings.