East: Cajuns answer every challenge with a haymaker

The Ragin’ Cajuns are where they figured to be all along — playing for the championship of the Lafayette regional, their regional, the one that was supposed to find them in the driver’s seat from the start.

The most successful regular-season in school history had Louisiana-Lafayette ranked No. 1 in the country and poised to host this regional and a super regional next week in a bid for the second College World Series berth in school history.

Then came Jackson State and a stunning 1-0 loss Friday night as the party was just getting started. The team that everyone in the Sun Belt Conference and much of the country had been chasing for most of the season, suddenly was in the losers bracket, forced to play big-time catchup — as in needing four straight wins over three days.

Well, it’s three down and one to go for the revitalized Cajuns.

It’s not only three wins, it’s three dominant wins, three wins with video game-like offensive numbers after the only shutout of the season.

A 14-8 rout of second-seeded and previously unbeaten Mississippi State on Sunday night followed an 11-1 victory against Jackson State earlier in the day, which followed a 9-2 victory against San Diego State on Saturday.

That’s 34 runs in 25 innings, a barrage involving all nine batters, but led by second baseman Jace Conrad, who had two homers and nine runs batted in Sunday.

“We definitely owed (Jackson State) one,” said Conrad, who paid them back with a grand slam and a two-run double.

“We let one slip earlier in the tournament.”

But UL-Lafayette has had few if any slipups since.

The scores of the last three games speak to the hitting, which featured a balance of small ball and long ball that the Cajuns are known for.

But any time a team faces the kind of compressed schedule that the losers bracket presents, it worries about running out of pitching before the weekend is done.

UL-Lafayette has more work to do Monday, but its pitching is in pretty good shape, all things considered. Strong starting performances by Austin Robichaux on Friday night and Carson Baranik on Saturday required minimal use of the bullpen. Matt Plitt finished both games, leaving the rest of the bullpen fully rested after two games.

Coach Tony Robichaux opted to go with freshman Chris Charpentier, who turned in a yeoman’s relief effort in the Sun Belt Conference title game against UT-Arlington a week earlier, against JSU.

Robichaux bypassed his No. 3 starter, dependable senior left-hander Cody Boutte, against the Tigers’ all-righty batting order. Using Charpentier, who didn’t have a start among seven appearances, was a bit of a gamble, but one worth taking. And it paid off as Robichaux was able to save Boutte for the Bulldogs. Boutte responded with 6.1 solid innings, and Martin Anderson and Ben Carter followed him.

But just like Friday’s upset loss threw the Cajuns curve, so did Sunday’s weather.

UL-Lafayette was rolling with its 8-1 lead and looking to make short work of JSU and leave itself a good two hours or so to rest and regroup before playing State at 6 p.m. But lightning caused the game to be halted in the bottom of the fifth and persistent rain and lightning dragged the delay on for three hours and 12 minutes.

The long delay was bothersome for the Cajuns for two reasons. One, it forced Charpentier from the game earlier than otherwise would have been the case.

“I thought maybe we could get two more innings (out of Charpentier),” Robichaux said.

Two, the game didn’t end until 7 p.m., leaving just a 65-minute break to get ready for the Bulldogs, who last left the field nearly 24 hours before the game finally began at 8:05.

But UL-Lafayette responded to that unexpected development as well as it did to Friday’s setback. First, Robichaux turned to Matt Hicks to replace Charpentier when the game resumed. On the surface, Hicks wasn’t the ideal candidate to eat innings because he usually is limited to 50 pitches or fewer because of recurring soreness in his back.

Hicks wasn’t fazed and got each of the remaining 15 outs, throwing 81 pitches.

Afterward, Robichaux said he thought the delay helped.

“It helped in one way,” he said, “because it was so hot, we had a chance to go in and get re-hydrated.”

Make no mistake about it, the Cajuns are re-hydrated. After adding three more runs for good measure after the delay, they turned their attention to State, the team that figured all along to present the biggest obstacle to them hosting a super regional for the first time.

They made short order of them, scoring three in the first, three in the third and six in the fourth. That gave them a 12-3 lead and made it clear that the Cajuns would get to play on Monday.

“Guys did a good job of staying focused,” Robichaux said, “and came out after the rain delay and finished what we started.”

That’s starting to look like it might be an appropriate motto for this team — finishing what it started.