Baseball: Cajuns ace Leger explains decision to sit out the season
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Jan. 23, 2018
The decision has been contemplated for quite some time, and now it’s finalized.
Pitcher Gunner Leger, ace of the nationally ranked UL baseball team staff, will redshirt in 2018 with plans to play again for the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2019 after having a partial ligament tear in his throwing elbow repaired and undergoing offseason surgery as well to remove a bone cyst in his leg.
The reason for redshirting, Leger told The Daily Advertiser, is simple: It’s all a matter of timing.
“It was important to me and my family, and Coach Robe (Tony Robichaux) especially, that I come back and can contribute in the manner that I have in the past — throwing a hundred innings, coming out and being six, seven innings strong every weekend,” said Leger, who turned down a chance to go pro despite the Miami Marlins — which selected him in the 26th round of last June’s Major League Baseball Draft — offering him sixth-round money.
The timetable for Leger’s rehab is such that he probably wouldn’t be ready to pitch at full strength and for usual duration until very late this season, which for the Ragin’ Cajuns — ranked No. 18 by Collegiate Baseball — starts with a three-game series at Texas that opens on Feb. 16.
Robichaux said Leger — a senior from Barbe High in Lake Charles, and the Sun Belt Conference’s 2017 Pitcher of the Year — wants “to be able to take a mound at the beginning of the season and log in a hundred innings and try to pitch his team somewhere.”
Related: Will Gunner Leger pitch in 2018?
“If you look at his mentality, to kind of understand where he comes from, he wants to play at a very, very high level,” Robichaux said. “Out of all the players I’ve coached in my 30 years, he’s one of the top three or four that demands so much out of himself, and so much perfection, and so much accountability.”
But Robichaux added that “with the two surgeries he had, realistically I think it puts him to the back end of the season.”
And that’s with no setbacks.
Leger, a second-team Collegiate Baseball 2018 preseason All-American based off of what he did last year, had his arm repaired July 13.
The lefty had a partial ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear, but didn’t need full-blown Tommy John reconstructive surgery, as might have been the case in years gone by.
Instead, Dr. Jeffrey Dugas — a protégé of famed Dr. James Andrews at the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama — executed a Tommy John repair procedure in which collagen-coated tape is directly attached to the UCL to anchor the ligament and help the healing process.
“I didn’t have a full tear,” Leger said. “But it was obviously a significant tear. It bothered me.”
Related: Leger earns All-American recognition
During the procedure, he added, “They lay a collagen filament, a collagen string, over it. They literally wrap the ligament, kind of like you would tie a piece of meat you were about to cook.”
Unable to throw during early recovery, Leger also underwent surgery Oct. 23 to remove a cyst in his femur bone that had been lingering since high school and had not calcified.
He initially put off a procedure that would have involved a canal through the femur and a bone graft, which would have resulted in a yearlong recovery and essentially having to relearn how to walk.
“It’s a big, big deal,” he said of that option, “so that’s why we were so hesitant through all these years.”
But after learning via biopsy that the lesion didn’t appear cancerous, wasn’t bone disease-related and was merely a cyst — best-case scenario — Leger opted for a surgery that would both cut rehab time and strengthen the femur.
His Houston-based orthopedic surgeon/musculoskeletal oncologist, Dr. Rex Marco, inserted a rod into the bone after the cyst was removed — an idea Leger himself had a hand in suggesting as other options were bandied about.
The 11-inch cyst ran vertically through the femur in his left leg, from the hip area down toward his knee.
The surgery was successful, but it did set back a bit what was going to be a six- to eight-month return process anyway — making the call to redshirt this season that much more sensible.
That decision, according to Leger, was “tough in the fact that obviously I want to be out there.”
“I’ve never really been hurt,” he said. “I just like to compete, and I want to be able to contribute. It’s tough to just sit here and remain idle.
“But it was very easy, very clear, as far as what the right decision was, not the emotional decision.”
Leger, his parents and Robichaux met and devised their plan.
Leger waited to make it official, though, until he was certain of it.
As time passed, it became more and more obvious he was.
“I would miss the majority of the season,” Leger said, “so it just became the clear choice to do that — for us, and for me. Just let me get back completely healthy.
“It was important for me to be 100 percent, to be able to do the same things I’ve done here … to be able to completely contribute like I have.”
Leger was Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and a Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game Freshman All-American in 2015, when he was 6-5 with a 2.99 ERA over 114.1 innings for an NCAA Super Regional team.
In 2016 he was 7-3 with a 2.26 ERA over 91.2 innings, including four 7.0-inning outings for a Regional team.
And last year the semifinalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award was 10-2 with a 1.97 ERA — 19th-best nationally — over 91.1 innings.
After “three great years,” Robichaux said, “now I think he has a right to heal himself up properly and get himself ready to come back out and pitch at a high level.”
Throwing everything he has into it is precisely what Leger planned to do when he opted to stay at UL.
He had put out word to major-league teams that he wouldn’t sign after his junior season unless he went in the draft’s top five rounds or received top-five-rounds money.
So when Miami took him anyway, chancing that Leger might change his mind, he simply told the Marlins thanks, but no thanks.
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But Robichaux wasn’t sure what Leger was going to do when, while sitting in a restaurant with his wife, his phone rang.
“Like normal, I told Colleen, ‘This is it. I’m gonna hear what I normally hear — ‘Appreciate everything, but I’m gonna go on and play professional baseball,’” he said.
“But his call was different. When I got on the phone with him,” added Robichaux, who has taken the Cajuns to 12 NCAA Regionals, four Super Regionals and the 2000 College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, “he said, ‘Coach I just want to let you know I’m not going. I’m gonna stay.’ And he said, ‘I want to pitch you and this team, this university, back to Omaha, and try to give you something that’s the only thing that you lack, and that’s a national championship.’ ”
Leger did get draft calls as early as the seventh round, but with the money not being right, he decided to stay.
“I didn’t want to have any regrets. And this place is important to me. Really important to me,” said Leger, whose father, former St. Thomas More High, McNeese State and UL Monroe assistant football coach Tim Leger, is UL’s new receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
Tim Leger, an Acadiana High graduate, was a fourth-round Pittsburgh Pirates draft choice who spent three seasons in the minors before playing quarterback at McNeese State in Lake Charles.
“I grew up here (in Lafayette). This is the first baseball I ever watched,” Gunner Leger said with reference to the Cajuns. “My grandfather’s had season tickets here for years. I love Coach Robe. I love our whole staff. I love our team. The city’s awesome.”
Why not stay?
“What was offered to me,” Leger said, “was not worth (losing) another year here and finishing … what I started here.”
Now, though, it will be two more years at UL if all goes as intended for Leger.
He did say he’s already had overtures about pro workouts when he’s back to fully healthy, but that by no means is what Leger is thinking about right now.
“That’s something that if it happens, it happens,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m really pushing.
“Obviously, my dream is to go and play pro ball and make it to the big leagues and all that, but right now it’s about me getting healthy and me finishing my career here.
“At the end of the day, I just want an opportunity to be able to showcase what I can do, because I feel like I belong there (playing pro ball),” he added. “And I think somebody will give me that.”
But that can wait.
Taking the time now to get his body right and not rushing anything, Robichaux suggested, is in the UL pitcher’s best interest.
“No one wants to get rid of a year of eligibility for five innings,” said Leger, who just started soft tossing about two weeks ago and still hasn’t been cleared to run.
“Some people can come back and get in 10, 15 innings, maybe, at the back end of the season, and roll out,” Robichaux added. “But I just don’t think that is what he wants to do.”