Louisiana-Lafayette faced few logistical hurdles en route to Alex Box Stadium for its first NCAA baseball regional in three seasons.
Yet, the venue itself, and the host team, might test the focus of the No. 2-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns (41-18), who face third-seeded Sam Houston State (37-20) at 7 p.m. Friday in LSU’s home park.
“That’s been the only downside of having such a close regional,” ULL coach Tony Robichaux said. “All the fans get involved and everything else. All of a sudden it’s us vs. LSU, when we’re playing Sam Houston State.”
Facing the top-seeded Tigers (52-9), who are the No. 4 national seed, is a topic the Ragin’ Cajuns deftly tried to skirt Thursday. Not so much out of deference or definace, either.
In Sam Houston State, Robichaux’s program draws the regular-season champion of the Southland Conference, a team that didn’t win its conference tournament but earned at-large berth after landing at No. 47 in the RPI.
Making mention of an 11-2 loss to LSU during a midweek game on Feb. 26 did little to stir the interest of ULL, either.
“I really don’t know what to say on that,” ULL outfielder Dex Kjerstad said. “We’ve kind of found our identity since then, and it would be good to play them again, but we’ve got to stay focused on Friday night.”
Specifically, the Ragin’ Cajuns — who lead the nation with 72 home runs and rank third with a .323 batting average — must contend with Bearkats left-hander Cody Dickson.
Dickson (9-5, 4.33 ERA), a junior from The Woodlands, Texas, started the season as Sam Houston’s regular starter on Saturdays and shifted to its Friday night starter during conference play.
“He’s got good stuff,” Robichaux said. “He’s got some good velocity, especially out of the left side. He’s their guy. You throw these great guys on the mound one night, it makes everyone around them play better.”
Yet Dickson’s struggles in the no. 1 starter role — including a miserable outing against Lamar, when he didn’t make it out of the fourth inning and allowed 11 runs — led to him being slotted again into a relief role.
Still, opponents are only hitting .186 against Dickson, a potential selection in the first five rounds of the Major League Baseball draft who leads the team with 89 strikeouts.
“He definitely has some experience now,” Bearkats coach David Pierce said. “His velocity is good. He can go up to 94 (mph), touch 95 (mph), but he doesn’t pitch there. He’s got a ‘plus’ curveball, and he’s got a very workable changeup. He’ll compete hard, and we’ll ride him as far as we can.”
The Cajuns’ lineup might be the most potent Dickson has faced this season.
Seven members of the ULL lineup are hitting better than .300, led by Kjerstad’s .398 average to go along with 12 home runs and 43 RBIs.
Until Sunday’s final in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, when Florida Atlantic pounded ULL early in a 16-8 victory, the Cajuns’ ability to bludgeon opponents with their bats continued unchecked. Over its first three tournament games, ULL averaged 10 runs, including a 12-2 run-rule victory over South Alabama to reach the final.
Robichaux, though, doesn’t expect to pile up run support this weekend, considering the Ragin’ Cajuns could draw LSU ace Aaron Nola in a potential meeting Saturday.
The Cajuns posted a 4.46 team ERA and allowed the third-most home runs at 43.
ULL will send Ryan Wilson (4-4, 3.44 ERA), a junior left-hander, to try check the Bearkats and alleviate pressure on his lineup.
“When you get into these things, you start facing a lot better arms,” Robichaux said. “So (our) run production could come down. We’ve got to have our pitchers on the other side stay away from big innings.”
If ULL achieves that aim, advancing in the process, Robichaux will have to confront the issue he’s tried to swerve around — a date with LSU.
“That’s the biggest issue we have,” Robichaux said. “Our biggest opponent is us. The fans are going to make it something else.”