LAFAYETTE — If their opening-night performance is any indication, the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns are going to make sure their fans get quite a show during the Sun Belt Conference baseball tournament.
Jace Conrad unloaded a no-doubt, three-run homer into the pine trees in right field with one out in the ninth, completing ULL’s rally from four runs down and ending a 9-6 victory over Florida International on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Sun Belt tournament.
A crowd of 2,172 mostly wearing red exploded as Conrad rounded the bases, then stuck around for a postgame fireworks show at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
No. 3 seed ULL (39-17) advanced to a winners bracket matchup against No. 2 seed South Alabama at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Sixth-seeded FIU (25-31), coached by former LSU assistant Turtle Thomas, will face No. 7 seed Arkansas-Little Rock at 12:30 p.m. in an elimination game.
“We knew we were going to win this game,” Conrad said. “We knew something good was coming.”
Conrad’s fourth homer of the year came just after Dex Kjerstad had made it a 6-6 game with his sacrifice fly to score Ryan Leonards, who slid home to barely beat a big-league throw by FIU center fielder Roche Woodard.
It was the second straight inning ULL used some late-game magic to energize its home crowd.
The Cajuns fell in a four-run hole after FIU struck for five runs in the fourth, but were finally able to catch up when Caleb Adams drew a bases-loaded walk to make it 5-5 with two outs in the eighth.
Then, in the top of the night, Woodard dumped a double down the right-field line to score Edwin Rios for the go-ahead run.
Once again, the Cajuns responded.
Leonards led off the bottom of the ninth with a line-drive, pinch-hit single, and Mitchell Davis hit Michael Strentz with a pitch to put runers at first and second with nobody out. A fielding error by Davis on Chase Compton’s sacrifice bunt loaded the bases.
After the sac fly by Kjerstad tied it, Conrad came to the plate looking for his fourth hit in five at-bats.
“He threw me a first-pitch slider,” Conrad said. “I knew he was coming back with something hard in the strike zone.”
Conrad, who earlier delivered an RBI double, finished a night in which ULL used six different pitchers.
Ryan Wilson, who entered for Matt Hicks and induced a flyout to end the FIU ninth, earned the win. Kody Smith, who went three scoreless innings in middle relief, helped steady ULL after the Panthers took their 5-1 lead in the fourth.
“This is the kind of game that will help us as we move forward,” ULL coach Tony Robichaux said, “because we’re going to need to know we can come back. That’s what’s good about this club. They love to compete.”
FLORIDA ATLANTIC 5, WESTERN KENTUCKY 4: No. 5 seed WKU made it interesting after falling behind five runs, but All-Sun Belt closer Hugh Adams pitched a perfect ninth inning to get No. 4 seed FAU into the winners bracket.
FAU starter Austin Gomber (6-4) had a 5-0 lead to start the eighth before Steve Hodgins cut the lead to four with a solo homer. A three-run homer by Ryan Huck off reliever Kevin Alexander later in the eighth brought the Hilltoppers within the final margin.
TROY 3, ARKANSAS STATE 2: Eighth-seeded Arkansas State, trailing by three going into the ninth inning, had the tying run on base when Nate Hill struck out Logan Uxa to end the game. Hill worked the final 3.1 innings to earn his fifth save.
The top-seeded Trojans took an early 1-0 lead when Trae Alexander struck in the first inning, connecting for his conference-best 16th homer of the year.
SOUTH ALABAMA 10, UALR 2: Anthony Izzio pitched a career-high eight innings, scattering seven hits, as No. 2 seed South Alabama earned the winners bracket matchup with ULL. Izzio got his third win of the year.
Jordan Patterson went 3-for-5 with a double and scored two runs, leading a USA offense that had five players with multiple hits.
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