LAFAYETTE — The Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team entered the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship red-hot, having won its previous two games by 17 combined runs and with 15 extra-base hits in three tournament games.
Florida Atlantic, which entered Sunday on a 10-game winning steak, proved to be the only thing hotter.
The fourth-seeded Owls jumped on No. 3 seed ULL for 11 runs in the first two innings, setting the stage for an easy 16-8 victory before a red-clad crowd of 2,528 at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
Both teams were presumed locks for the NCAA tournament, but FAU receives the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to regional action. ULL is expected to earn an at-large spot when pairings are announced Monday morning, potentially as the No. 2 seed in the Baton Rouge Regional.
“You put yourself in position to win a championship, and to have a chance to do it at home, that’s what hurts the most,” ULL coach Tony Robichaux said. “But even if you’d have gotten a ring, you would still have the same plan in front of you right now. Only 64 teams continue to play. Like I told the team, you’ll be one of those 64.”
FAU (39-20) was in the Sun Belt tournament championship game for the first time.
“It’s been a great ride,” FAU coach John McCormack said.
ULL (41-18) hoped to break through in the Sun Belt tournament after historically struggling in the event.
The Cajuns won their only Sun Belt tournament title in 1998. They entered the week having lost seven straight Sun Belt tournament games.
Playing before their home fans, the Cajuns looked like they may this year be on their way.
They beat Florida International in Wednesday’s opener on a walk-off homer, then blasted second-seeded South Alabama by seven runs and 10 runs on back-to-back days.
But any hope ULL had of finishing the week unbeaten seemed to disappear in a nightmarish second inning.
ULL starter Kody Smith, who surrendered three straight two-out hits in the first that put the Cajuns in a 2-0 hole, was chased after facing just two batters in the second without recording an out.
Three more ULL pitchers saw action by the time FAU had finished batting in the nine-run inning.
Levi Meyer led off the inning with a double, the first of two in the inning. Ricky Santiago’s two-run homer, the last of FAU’s seven hits in the inning, capped the scoring.
“They were hitting balls that had eyes,” ULL right fielder Dex Kjerstad said. “It was just an unfortunate inning.”
FAU ace left-hander Austin Gomber, who worked 7.1 innings to beat Western Kentucky in Wednesday’s first round, entered Sunday on a strict pitch count. He went only the first three innings, throwing 28 pitches.
That was all the Owls needed from him on a day when their offense touched up seven pitchers for 16 hits.
“I’ve said it since the beginning of the year, we’d go as far as we could pitch,” Robichaux said. “We didn’t pitch good enough in the second inning.”
The lopsided win saw FAU score its most runs in any game this season.
The Owls entered the day known for pitching and defense. They won two of their first three games at the tournament by one run and the other by two in 10 innings, and they had not scored more than five runs in any of those three wins.
Nonetheless, McCormack said he never counted out a ULL offense that heads to regionals with 72 homers.
“I never felt comfortable until the second out of the eighth,” McCormack said. “These guys (the ULL hitters) are an unbelievable offensive team, and they can put up an eight-spot on anybody just like that.”
ULL’s best chance to get back in the game came in the fourth.
After a two-run double by nine-hole hitter Blake Trahan brought the Cajuns within 14-4, Dex Kjerstad drew a walk to load the bases with two outs. Jace Conrad pulled a Kyle Miller pitch deep to right field, sending the ULL faithful to its feet.
Instead of resulting in a grand slam, the fly to right was caught at the wall by Corey Keller to end the inning.
“You can’t put your hitters this far behind,” Robichaux said. “We’ve got to get off the field with our relief pitching. We’ve got to get out of an inning when it’s time to get out of an inning.”
With the Cajuns down 16-7 and batting in the eighth, the game was delayed 1 hour, 54 minutes because of a series of lightning strikes in the area.
But FAU had little problems sealing the deal.
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