Cajuns carrying big sticks into SBC tournament

LAFAYETTE — Last May 20, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s baseball team was packing the equipment and bagging the bats, with their season ending on a humbling note.

Not that the bats were hard to bag. They weren’t nicked or dented very much, after the Ragin’ Cajuns had their second-worst hitting season since 1980. Because of that dearth of offense, the Cajuns were 23-30 and didn’t qualify for the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

“I was embarrassed last year,” junior infielder Ryan Leonards said. “So we turned our goal and expectations to win it all this year.”

ULL begins that quest Wednesday when it hosts the Sun Belt tourney at M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field, with the third-seeded Cajuns host Florida International in Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. fourth game of the double-elimination tournament.

This year, not only are the Cajuns in the eight-team field, but they’re seeded third and missed sharing the league’s regular-season title by one game with a 38-17 overall mark and a 19-11 league record. Troy and South Alabama both finished at 20-10 and are the Nos. 1 and 2 seeded teams, and all three are virtual locks for NCAA regional slots.

It won’t be the Cajuns’ first NCAA outing. They’ve made 12 appearances in regional play since 1988, the most recent in Austin, Texas, in 2010. But in almost all of those seasons, ULL reached the postseason on a foundation of pitching, solid defense and timely hitting.

This year, suddenly, the Cajuns are the wall-bangers.

A ULL team that hit .263 last year is now hitting .321 entering the Sun Belt tournament, which is fifth nationally. Six starters are hitting better than .330 and all but one player in the regular lineup is over .300.

Even more notably, the Cajuns lead the country in home runs in the regular season (62), after hitting 18 as a team last year. Dylan Butler led the squad with eight homers last year and only one other Cajun had more than one. This year, six players have seven or more homers with Caleb Adams (13) and Dex Kjerstad (10) both in double-digits. That’s helped ULL rank second nationally in slugging percentage (.507).

They’ve scored double-digit runs 15 times and had double-digit hits 33 times, and are 15-0 and 30-3 when hitting those marks after sweeping a series at ULM last weekend, their 11th series win of the year.

“It was a matter of us just not panicking after last year,” said ULL coach Tony Robichaux, whose team is No. 24 in this week’s pseudo-RPI rankings. “We were young last year and had a lot of injuries.”

Three main factors have led to the quantum leap in firepower, including the addition of a junior college trio of Adams, Kjerstad and Seth Harrison to the lineup. That group now joins Butler in making up the regular outfield/designated hitter starters, and the trio is hitting a combined .357 with 31 homers.

“That has been enormous for us,” Robichaux said. “We knew we’d have to pitch, but we knew the hitters would buy us some time.”

Every returnee in the regular lineup has also bumped his offensive numbers from the previous year, so much so that last year’s leading hitter, Chase Compton, has struggled to get into the lineup after a midseason slump. But Compton had a grand slam and a bases-clearing triple in the final two wins at ULM.

“He continued to work, and baseball paid him back,” Robichaux said of Compton. “We’re going to need him in a long and hot tournament, for more depth on the left side.”

Robichaux credits assistant coach Matt Deggs with the awakening of the ULL bats. Deggs, who arrived at midseason last year after six years of running the Texas A&M offense, changed the Cajuns hitting system ... but not before last season ended.

“It would have been too difficult to change at midstream last year,” Robichaux said. “But the day after the Monroe debacle (three losses to end the 2012 season), we went to work. Our guys have bought into the new system, and the approach has made them better hitters.

“There are no holes in the lineup now ... if you’re a pitcher, you can’t work around guys. They don’t have a way out.”

All nine guys can wear you down and make a pitcher panic. That’s what the Omaha team (ULL’s 2000 College World Series squad) did so well.”

Kjerstad’s .377 mark leads the Sun Belt, but teammate and third baseman Tyler Girouard is right behind at .376 while Harrison is at .356, Leonards is at .337, freshman shortstop Blake Trahan is at .335 and Adams is at .331. That balance has helped ULL hit .300 or better as a team in each of the last eight individual weeks, a testament to its consistency.

“When you get into a tournament, teams are going to start getting short on pitching,” Leonards said. “If you can hit, that’ll carry you through. Pitching and defense are always going to be the most important things here, but in this situation you have to be able to hit and we’ve been able to do that.”