“Simply put, I think (LSU’s Alex Bregman) may be the best freshman to come through this league as long as I’ve been in the league.” Mitch Gaspard, Alabama coach
LAFAYETTE — There was so little reaction from the Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team Monday, one might think the Ragin’ Cajuns were old-hat at this NCAA Regional stuff.
When the Cajuns’ spot in the Baton Rouge Regional was announced during ESPNU’s bracket announcement show, there was some applause from the ULL squad gathered at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field to watch on the scoreboard video screens. No yelling or whooping, no back-slapping, and definitely no sighs of relief.
“It’s kind of where we wanted to go,” said sophomore catcher Michael Strentz after ULL (41-18) found out it would be the second seed in its closest regional activity and would join LSU’s host Tigers (52-9), Sam Houston State (37-27) and Jackson State (34-20) in the field.
Part of the restrained reaction was the fact that the Cajuns were locked into the 64-team field and weren’t sweating out a selection. Even though they didn’t win the Sun Belt tournament title and the league’s automatic bid, losing in the final 16-8 to Florida Atlantic on Sunday at Moore Field, ULL took a No. 24 RPI ranking into the Sun Belt tourney and went 3-1, including two wins over No. 16 RPI South Alabama. Its only loss was to a No. 34 RPI FAU squad that has won 11 straight games.
“It’s a reward for their body of work,” said Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux, who will take his ninth ULL team into regional play. “Last night, 230 or so teams in the country cleared out their lockers, and we didn’t.”
The other reason for the muted response was the assumed assignment in Baton Rouge. With no regional sites in Texas, and the next-closest regional host being Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., it was almost a given ULL was headed for Alex Box Stadium for the fifth time since 1990, although for the first time since 2002.
“It’s where we thought we’d get paired up,” junior outfielder Dex Kjerstad said. “It’s my first time to be a part of this, so it’s exciting for me. We’re all pretty much focused on the regional and nothing else right now.”
It’s a first for virtually every member of the team. ULL’s previous trip to NCAA postseason play was in 2010 in a power-packed Austin Regional where the Cajuns beat Rice before losing to Texas and Rice. Only one player on this year’s roster, injured and redshirting pitcher Chase Traffica, was on that team.
“We’re a young team, but we’ve still got some age,” Robichaux said. “We’ve got some redshirt sophomores and we’ve got the junior college guys, some who played for a national championship at (LSU-Eunice), and the good thing is that all of those guys are coming back next year. That’s big for us to keep this thing going and not have a two-year break like we’ve had.”
ULL’s roster includes only two seniors in pitchers Ben Frith and Kendall Mayer, who have combined for only 29.2 innings this year. The 10 Cajuns who make up ULL’s regular lineup rotation are four juniors, five sophomores and true freshman shortstop Blake Trahan.
The Cajuns have not faced first-round opponent and Southland Conference at-large selection Sam Houston State, the league regular-season winner, but ULL did go 7-1 against Southland teams this year. ULL did face potential second-game foe LSU during the year, falling 11-2 at Moore Field.
“I like that we’re getting another shot at them,” said Kjerstad, the Sun Belt’s leading hitter (.398) who ranks sixth nationally in hits (94) and has 12 homers out of the leadoff spot. “We’re definitely a better club than we were then ... we’ve grown a lot. That was early in the season, and we’ve overcome a lot since then.”
“We’re 100 percent better,” Strentz said of comparing the late February Cajuns to now. “Everyone was so wound up last time, and everybody pressed. We weren’t calm and relaxed like we are now, and we’re going to just keep doing our thing.”
“We saw a lot of good pitching the rest of the year, a lot like we saw that night,” Robichaux said of the earlier LSU loss. “The Sun Belt was a lot better than last year, and that got us ready.”
Four Sun Belt teams made the field, tying the league’s all-time high, with ULL, South Alabama and FAU No. 2 seeds and regular-season co-champion Troy a No. 3 seed.
The Cajuns are tied for second nationally with a .323 team batting average and lead the country in home runs (72) after hitting only 18 last year. That offensive attack is the biggest reason ULL is one of the nation’s most improved teams, going from 23-30 to this year’s 41-win season while reaching the conference tournament final and finishing one game out of the SBC regular-season title.
The Cajuns also have had eight straight double-digit hit games and hit .355 in the conference tournament.
“We know we can hit,” Kjerstad said. “We just have to get everything clicking like we’ve been doing the last few weeks.”