Cajun baseball breaks out the big bats

by Dan McDonald

The Cajuns, just like the chicks, dig the long ball, and the result is a stunning turnaround and a legitimate chance to make some post-season noise.

One year ago this week, UL's baseball team was wrapping up one of its worst offensive seasons in recent history, and was on its way to missing out on a berth in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, not only are the Ragin' Cajuns locked into a spot in the league tournament which they will host beginning next Wednesday at "Tigue" Moore Field but they're going to be a high seed, perhaps as high as a No. 2 seed when the regular season ends on Saturday. They're also a virtual lock for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, a position that was rapidly becoming a distant memory since UL's last trip to the postseason.

And offense?

Entering this weekend's series at UL Monroe, the Cajuns lead the country in home runs with 62, rank second in slugging percentage (.501), fourth in hits (575), seventh in batting average (.318) and eighth in both runs (385) and average runs per game (7.4).

This from a team that struggled to score runs at all in 2012, when UL went 23-30 and sat home as one of the two Sun Belt teams that didn't qualify for the eight-team league tournament.

"We saw during the fall that we could hit," says Cajun coach Tony Robichaux. "We felt that we'd go as far as we could pitch, and that hasn't changed."

But the Cajuns have changed. In an ironic turn of events, a program that has ranked in the top two in the Sun Belt in earned run average in nine of the past 10 years now uses its bats to find success. Robichaux has earned a reputation as a molder of solid pitching staffs on his way to 929 wins in 27 seasons, but this year the Cajuns are middle of the pack in the Sun Belt in earned run average (4.45) and are ninth out of the 10 teams in opponents' batting average (.280).

Fortunately, the new-found power has more than covered for a young, thin and experience-challenged pitching staff, and the biggest positive in the entire program is that UL has only two seniors on its roster both of them seldom-used pitchers. Every position player returns next year, and Robichaux has already signed several pitching prospects out of junior colleges for next year's squad.

"If the draft doesn't get us, we should be pretty solid next year," he says, in what many Cajun followers consider an understatement.

UL's power boost has come from a combination of new faces in the lineup and a blossoming of several players who saw their first action last season, creating balance in what has been a consistent and injury-free lineup. Eight of the nine regulars have 30 RBI or more, those eight are all slugging .450 or more and all but one of that group has at least four homers.

Robichaux doesn't hesitate to credit new assistant coach and hitting coach Matt Deggs, who joined the staff at mid-season last year, for his team's explosiveness and new attacking style. Their power bucks a national trend in which scoring and home runs are down with the change in bat regulations, with the Cajuns long-time proponents of pitching, defense and "small ball" going to the power game when many other teams are embracing what Robichaux has preached all along. There likely isn't another team in the country that's hit three times more homers this season than last year a year in which UL hit 18 as a team.

But they're still notorious for the short game. Ever since they "introduced" the squeeze play to the nation at the 2000 College World Series, the bunting game and the running game have been a big part of UL's attack and this season is no different. More than a dozen times this year UL has squeezed home runs, and they still rank in the top half of the league in sacrifices while ranking second in steals.

The Cajuns are tied for third in the league (35-17 overall, 16-11 in league play) with each team playing one final three-game series, and UL's happens to be against a ULM team that has already been eliminated from contention for the tournament. But it's far from a meaningless series, because of seeding ramifications that stem from a weekend series in Mobile matching league-leading South Alabama and second-ranked Troy.

UL needs to win two more games than Troy this weekend to claim the No. 2 seed, or equal the number of wins recorded by Florida Atlantic (the team UL is tied with for third) to insure the No. 3 seed for next week's double-elimination tournament at the "Tigue."

But Robichaux said he won't be scoreboard watching, and neither will his team.

"You gotta be careful," he says. "You have to stay focused on you and not worry about everybody else."

He also said he and the Cajuns are taking nothing for granted even though ULM has only pride on the line beginning in Thursday's 6 p.m. series opener.

"Only a fool underestimates their opponent," Robichaux says. "Playing a team that's mathematically out, we have to get out first early and try to break their will since they don't have a lot to play for. They're going to make some pushes at us, and we have to hold off that push and make them expend a lot of energy. But I think we can score some runs in that park because the ball carries pretty well."