Cajuns open play in SBC tourney, look to bigger goal

LAFAYETTE — They would obviously like to win the Sun Belt Conference baseball tournament that begins Wednesday at their own M.L “Tigue” Moore Field. But Louisiana-Lafayette and coach Tony Robichaux know the bigger picture lies ahead.

The third-seeded Cajuns open defense of the home field at 7:30 p.m. when they meet sixth-seeded Florida International in the fourth and final game of the double-elimination tournament’s opening day.

The Cajuns (38-17) have won the Sun Belt tournament title only once in their 21 seasons in the league — winning in Mobile in 1998 — despite advancing to NCAA tournament play a dozen times since 1988. And along with missing out on qualifying for last year’s league meet, ULL also carries a seven-game losing streak in Sun Belt Tournament play.

“We started the year wanting to hit 40 wins and wanting to win the conference championship,” Robichaux said, “and that slipped out of our hands. Now we have another chance.”

But while Robichaux and the Cajuns have the tourney title on the “goals” list and would love to “dog-pile” on their home turf following Sunday’s 1 p.m. championship game, it’s the penultimate goal.

The quest for the final goal actually starts at 11 a.m. Monday when the regional fields are announced, and when the Cajuns will likely return to NCAA tournament play for the first time since 2010.

Troy, South Alabama, ULL and Florida Atlantic, four teams separated by one game in the final Sun Belt standings and the top four seeds, are all virtual locks for regional berths whether they claim the tourney title and the accompanying automatic bid. That’s why Robichaux said he’s averse to taking chances this weekend that may affect his team’s NCAA opportunity.

“Our RPI is good enough that we’re not going to do things like turn a pitcher around and throw them twice,” he said. “Our starting pitchers are starting to get up around the 90-inning mark this season, and with the heat on the turf that we’ll have this week we’re going to make sure we don’t wear them down too much.”

The heat will be a factor, as will depth, since teams will have to win a minimum of four games and may have to win as many as six in five days to take the title that Louisiana-Monroe won last year.

FAU (35-20) and Western Kentucky (28-27) kick off tourney play at 9 a.m. and top-seeded Troy (39-16) meets No. 8 Arkansas State (26-29) in the 12:30 p.m. game. USA (40-16), co-champions in the regular season and the league’s only 40-win team so far, meets Arkansas-Little Rock (28-26) at 4 p.m. before the Cajuns meet FIU (25-30) in Wednesday’s finale.

Those first-round games match up the RPI “haves” and “have-nots.” USA, Troy, ULL and FAU are all in the top 34 in the final regular-season RPI standings announced Tuesday, while the other four teams all have triple-digit RPI’s and must win the tournament title to extend their season.

But Robichaux knows what can happen. Teams seeded fifth or lower have won three of the past five tourneys.

“The key is having our starters get us off to a good start,” he said, “because I think in this situation our hitters can take over a game if we don’t stake teams too much. Our bullpen is going to have to be good ... that’s going to be the most important thing for everybody because of the heat and how many games you have to play.”

Robichaux has normally tabbed sophomore right-hander and son Austin Robichaux (7-2) and junior left-hander Cody Boutte (8-3) for the first two games of league series since midseason. But he said those plans will change in the tournament, and that Boutte will open up against the Panthers.

“We might match up more all the way through, instead of just going with Austin and Boutte for the first two,” he said. “We’re going to look at the numbers from our previous games.”

Whoever gets the ball should benefit from the home-field advantage. ULL is hosting for the second time in six years, and opens with an FIU team that didn’t come to Moore Field this year.

The Cajuns, who took two of three from the Panthers in Miami one month ago, went 25-7 at home this year and lost only one of eight home weekend series, that coming to USA two weeks ago in a 2-1 series loss that cost them a share of the regular-season title.

“The crowd’s a big advantage for us,” said infielder Ryan Leonards, one of six starters hitting over .330. “Some teams that haven’t been here are going to see what an advantage it is.”