East: Ragin’ Cajuns’ regional title a testament to Tony Robichaux, ‘grinders’

Louisiana-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux is fond of calling his team “a bunch of grinders.”

It’s an appropriate description, which was demonstrated during the Ragin’ Cajuns’ run through the losers bracket to the NCAA Lafayette regional championship. They did a lot of grinding during four wins over the course of 56 hours.

It’s easy to see where they come by that characteristic.

Robichaux has been grinding away in Lafayette for 20 seasons, winning more than 700 games. Throw in eight more seasons as a head coach at his alma mater, McNeese State, and he has nearly 1,000 wins.

He has taken the Cajuns to 10 NCAA tournaments, three super regionals and their only College World Series appearance in 2000.

But this year and this team are special. The Cajuns’ regular-season accomplishments, which made them the consensus No. 1 team in the country, have been well documented.

Now, after a weekend in which five of the other seven national seeds saw their seasons end, sixth-seeded UL-Lafayette was the only team to lose its opener and advance. It’s the second-highest seed left, behind No. 3 Virgina. No. 7 TCU was the other national seed to advance.

When the Cajuns made national news by losing 1-0 to Jackson State on Friday, Robichaux put the loss in perspective — and his team did the same. He pointed out that the pitching — his son Austin for eight innings and reliever Matt Plitt for one — was outstanding, as was the defense.

The hitters had their chances, putting at least one runner on base in each of the first eight innings, getting eight hits (one more than they would have in a 5-3 title-clinching victory against Mississippi State on Monday night), four walks and a hit batsman. The only thing that was missing was timely hitting.

So Robichaux and his coaches kept grinding, tweaking the batting order for the first of what would be four win-or-go-home games. He moved hot-hitting Blake Trahan from the No. 9 spot to a much more prominent role at No. 3. He slid cool-hitting Seth Harrison from No. 2 to No. 7, hoping he would relax and get back on track.

It worked in a 9-2 victory against San Diego State and for the rest of the regional. Trahan, who had three hits at the bottom of the order Friday, went 7-for-13 and got on base 12 times after move.

Harrison responded just as Robichaux had hoped, going 6-for-15 after a five-game hitless streak in his previous spot in the batting order.

The rearranged order and resurgent Harrison transformed the Cajuns offense, leaving no breathers for opposing pitchers.

Robichaux has said the primary offensive goal coming out of last season was to become more patient and draw more walks without sacrificing aggression.

“Controlled aggression” is what he calls it.

In the wake of the only shutout of the season, Robichaux and hitting coach Matt Deggs re-emphasized the controlled aggression approach and instituted more “forced takes” to ensure it.

After drawing four walks in the opening loss, the Cajuns drew 28 in the next four games.

Robichaux, who takes charge of the pitching staff, held back sore-armed Ryan Wilson late in the season so he would be ready when he was needed most. He was really needed Monday night.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” Robichaux said, “so we handed the ball off to one of the toughest guys on this team.”

Wilson was outstanding in holding the Bulldgs to one run through six innings. After getting the first two outs in the seventh, he hit a batter and allowed a walk.

Plitt relieved and yielded back-to-back singles that allowed the inherited runners to score before getting a strikeout. But Plitt allowed no more.

After the game, Robichaux reiterated what he had said after the opening loss: that UL-Lafayette did everything it was supposed to do except for the lack of timely hitting in the first game.

He credited much of the team’s success to the raucous crowds at Moore Field, which for the first time will be the site of a super regional when Ole Miss visits, beginning Saturday.

Then he and his team went back to grinding.