LAFAYETTE — One month ago, few thought Matt Plitt was going to turn into Louisiana-Lafayette’s lock-down closer for the baseball postseason.
The Texas City, Texas, senior right-hander had struggled in outings against Troy and Southeastern Louisiana, games in which he had trouble finding the strike zone and opponents were making solid contact — four extra-base hits and two homers in three combined innings.
But Ragin’ Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux never lost faith.
“In this profession, it’s hard to go from good to great and never have any issues in a 56-game schedule,” Robichaux said. “With Matt, he continued to keep coming to work every day, and that’s what I put stock in ... even though he gave up a couple of big innings, he kept coming back to work and working on his craft.”
That faith, and a fastball that darted and dove away from Mississippi State batters on Monday night, was rewarded. It is also one of the reasons the Cajuns are hosting Ole Miss this weekend in the NCAA super regional.
Plitt entered Monday’s winner-take-all game in the seventh inning with the Cajuns leading 4-1, but he also inherited two runners on base after starter Ryan Wilson walked one batter and hit another with two outs. Before that, Wilson had checked the Bulldogs on four hits and had faced only five over the minimum through six innings.
“Scoob (Wilson), he comes out every time and you know he’s going to give you a chance to win,” Plitt said. “I just tried to come out with a clear mind and a clear slate and relax.”
Mississippi State got back-to-back ground-ball singles that scored those two runs to make it a one-run game, but Plitt struck out cleanup hitter Gavin Collins. He then struck out three more Bulldogs over the final two innings, including the final out of the tournament’s hottest hitter in second baseman Brett Pirtle. In between, he got one ground ball and two pop-ups that ensured UL-Lafayette’s third trip to the super regionals.
“He’s been outstanding,” Robichaux said of Plitt. “He’s got a lot of belief and trust in his fastball, and when you pitch off your fastball, you’re going to be good. Early in the year when he got into a little trouble, I think he lost a little bit of confidence in his fastball and went to some off-speed pitches early.”
That hasn’t been the case recently. Since giving up a grand slam against Southeastern in a late-April game the Cajuns held on to win 10-8, Plitt’s had a win and three saves in eight outings. Six of those appearances have been split between the Sun Belt Conference tournament and the NCAA regional, and he hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of the six while recording 14 strikeouts.
He made three key late-inning appearances in the Sun Belt tournament, two in one-run games and the other entering when UL-Lafayette trailed, and allowed a total of one hit in four total innings.
He also finished with 2.2 shutdown innings in the regional against San Diego State, a win that started the Cajuns’ four-win run to the regional title. But it was the Mississippi State save that grabbed most of the attention.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything different now,” Plitt said. “I just kept coming to work. I know my teammates believed in me. Every time I go out there, they have my back. Even in that three-week span, they were there to pick me up.
“Having those guys behind me, it’s a great feeling. I can have two strikes on a guy and a runner at third base, and there’s no question in my mind that I can spike a curveball and Mike (catcher Michael Strentz) is going to block it up for me every time.”
Plitt is 2-0 this season with five saves and a 3.67 ERA, and opponents are hitting .206 against him. That followed a 4-1 initial UL-Lafayette season in 2013 in which he saved his best effort for last — a clutch seven-inning relief stint against Sam Houston State in the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional that allowed the Cajuns to rally and take a 7-5 win to advance back to the title game.
“When I first got here and got a grasp of the baseball program, met the coaches and saw the tone the coaches set, I saw that this kind of success is pretty expected,” Plitt said. “We all knew what we were capable of doing.”
In between, there was a brutal set of fall workouts that included simulated Navy SEAL training.
“It became everybody in,” Plitt said. “It’s not like it brought us closer together because we were pretty close already, but the hard fall weathered us and got us ready for what was about to happen in the spring. (The coaches) threw everything at us.”
“Baseball’s paying him back now for putting in that work,” Robichaux said.