Power-hitting Cajuns primed for Sun Belt baseball tourney

by Dan McDonald

UL's baseball team is a very different one from the squad that missed last year's Sun Belt Tournament, and their new-found long-ball ability could bode well when tourney play starts this week at Moore Field.
The turnaround over a 365-day period for UL's baseball team is nothing short of amazing ... and surprising, considering some of the Ragin' Cajuns' long-standing baseball traditions.

Last season, the Cajuns had their second-worst hitting team statistically since 1980, ranking last or next-to-last in every major Sun Belt Conference offensive category. As a result, UL went 23-30 and didn't even qualify for a spot among the league's top eight teams that took part in the Sun Belt Tournament.

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

Fast-forward a year, and UL begins its quest for a tournament title Wednesday when the Cajuns host the Sun Belt tourney at M. L. "Tigue" Moore Field, with the third-seeded hosts facing 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 third-seeded 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 when those brackets are announced Monday.

But it's how the Cajuns put themselves in this position that's most surprising.

The trademark of Tony Robichaux-coached teams is pitching, solid defense and timely hitting. Suddenly, this year, the Cajuns dig the long ball.

A UL team that hit .263 last year is now hitting .321 entering the Sun Belt Tournament, good enough to rank fifth nationally. Six starters are hitting over .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, and this year six players have seven or more with Caleb Adams (13) and Dex Kjerstad (10) both in double-digits. That's helped UL 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 UL Monroe last weekend, their 11th series win of the year.

"It was a matter of us just not panicking after last year," said Robichaux, whose team is 24th in this week's NCAA RPI standings. "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 on Monday. "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 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 says 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 UL bats. Deggs, who arrived at midseason last year after six years of running the Texas A&M offense, changed the Cajun hitting system ... but not before last season ended.

"It would have been too difficult to change at mid-stream last year," Robichaux says. "But the day after the Monroe debacle (the Cajuns lost three times to ULM to end the 2012 season, insuring that they wouldn't be playing in the league tournament), 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 at .337, freshman shortstop Blake Trahan is at .335 and Adams is at .331. That balance has helped UL hit .300 or over 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 says. "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."