Cajuns at No. 1

by Patrick Flanagan

It's not just wishful thinking - these boys have what it takes to win it all.

On March 25, an announced crowd of 3,586 braved brilliant blue skies to witness something never before seen in Lafayette: Ragin' Cajuns baseball players taking the field as the No. 1 team in the country. No UL team in any sport has ever scaled such heights.

Photos by Buddy Delahoussaye

The size of the crowd must have surprised university athletic administrators, as all the game programs were gone long before the National Anthem. Too bad, an official record of the game would have been a cool souvenir.

Despite the momentous occasion (the Collegiate Baseball poll ranked the Cajuns No. 1 the day before) the usual late arrivals trickled in as the crowd grew over the first couple of innings. After the sun set, individual fans grew as well. Several left their seats dressed for spring only to return minutes later well-clothed for yet another winter-like evening.

Hopefully, all were in their seats for the play of the game in the bottom of the fourth. It was evidence, if the rowdy crowd needed any, that the Cajuns deserve their lofty ranking. The Northwestern State third baseman was replaced when he appeared rattled, if not injured, after diving for Dylan Butler's double down the line into the left field corner. With two out the substitute was called to make an inning-ending catch of a foul pop-up. The ball eluded him and the Cajuns remained alive with a runner on base. At the plate Ryan Leonards counted his blessings and hit the next pitch over the left field wall. By the end of the fourth the score was 7-1 and the game was over. Lefty Ryan Wilson was impressive, winning his third game and giving up one run. Reliever Matt Plitt came on in the sixth and retired the 10 batters he faced.

Coach Tony Robichaux, as usual, summed it up succinctly, "When you give this team an opening or a crack, they're going to pounce through." A vivid image of what is more commonly known as "timely hitting."

Timely hitting, good pitching and good defense are Robichaux's mantra. His reputation as a thoughtful, wise teacher of the game conjures up an image of the coach as Buddha sitting cross-legged in the dugout meditating on percentages and counting pitches. Even his motivational messages are Zen-like: "This club hasn't done anything yet but win a lot of games." It certainly has done that, winning its 23rd against the Demons against only two losses. At this writing, its consecutive wins stand at 14, the longest active winning streak in the nation, including victories over then-No. 1 LSU and Tulane, both on the road. The previous winning streak ended at 10 after taking two out of three from #21 Alabama at Moore Field.

Senior Ryan Wilson

But Robichaux is right as usual. Nothing matters if you aren't well-positioned for the post season. Winning even more games is necessary to ensure landing an NCAA Regional and maybe even, Cajuns hearts be still, a Super Regional. To achieve that goal the Cajuns have to finish in the top eight in the country.

This club can do it. Last year's season-ending loss to LSU in Baton Rouge provides the motivation. Returning eight of nine position starters provides the experience and skill needed to succeed under the pressure of post-season play.

They can hit. The team averages over .300 with Seth Harrison leading at .359 as of March 23. The Cajuns have hit 29 home runs compared to opponents' five.

They can field. Catcher Micheal Strentz and second baseman Jace Conrad have yet to make an error. The team's fielding percentage is .975.

And they can pitch. Ace Austin Robichaux is 4-1 (the season opener was the loss) with a 1.76 ERA and Saturday starter Carson Baranik is 5-0, 1.38 ERA. Together they have 83 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched. Eight other pitchers who have made appearances have ERAs at 3.00 or below. Oh yes, they can pitch, like practically every other team Robichaux has coached. (After this column went to press, the Cajuns were set to host Western Kentucky University in a three-game conference series.)

The Cajuns have one other thing going for them, 21 of the 31 players on the UL roster hail from Louisiana. The big block letters spelling "Louisiana" that stretch across Tigue Moore's high-tech scoreboard indicate as much: They are Louisiana's team. In a little over two months they could be America's.

John Mikell believes energy-efficient air conditioning and football are the keys to Louisiana's future. He lives near Grand Coteau.