Regional baseball preview

by Leslie Turk

Action starts at 1 p.m. Friday, and at 6 p.m. #1 seed UL faces #4 seed Jackson State.

The NCAA Regional selection show opened Monday with a live shot from Tigue Moore Field with the Ragin' Cajuns baseball team sporting "Mission Omaha" T-shirts as they waited for their name to be called. The ESPNU cameras returned to the Tigue several times during the program, which also featured a list of UL's national rankings: Wins (53) #1, Slugging Percentage (.500) #1, Home Runs (63) #2, Stolen Bases (102) #4 and Runs per Game (7.9) #4.

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Besides revealing the Cajuns' #6 national seeding, the show's highlight was an interview with coach Tony Robichaux, who acknowledged that the national recognition was great for the university and a reward for his coaching staff. He also noted that the players deserved it for practicing so hard. "And we have one of the greatest fan bases in the country," he said. When asked about the teams sent to the Lafayette Regional, Robichaux noted that once you get down to 64, "You are going to get some very salty baseball teams."

The saltiness starts with #2 seed Mississippi State (37-22), last year's surprise national runner-up. The Bulldogs are led by John Cohen, former head coach at Northwestern State and Kentucky before landing in Starkville. Monday Cohen offered a taste of his personality to local media. "I'm pretty familiar with Lafayette's facility, the town and that stuff, having been at Natchitoches up the road." Asked about Moore Field, Cohen said, "At one point I thought it played really big, but there's a lot of balls flying out of that place for whatever reason. I don't know if there are any alterations made to the ballpark but obviously it's a great atmosphere."

Cohen built a Bulldog team designed for Omaha, exceptional pitching and solid defense. After 13 wins in relief last year, Ross Mitchell now starts. His record is 8-4 with a 2.10 ERA. Jonathan Holder had 21 saves in 2013 and remains in the bullpen with seven saves and a 2.38 ERA. Second baseman Brett Pirtle started every game and carries a .341 batting average.
Mississippi State fans travel well, and, according to the website "For Whom the Cowbell Tolls," a Regional assignment to Lafayette "would be an almost too-good-to-be-true situation."

San Diego State (42-19) will face Miss State at 1 p.m. Friday. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn coaches his alma mater, and there are strong indications he has shared some hitting secrets with the Aztecs. Senior second baseman Tim Zier has 300 career hits and catcher Brad Haynal went 14 for 22 during the Mountain West tournament. SDSU proved its saltiness by going 4-1 in the tournament against teams who held a 2-7 edge over it in conference play.

But the saltiest entry has to be Jackson State (31-23). One week before the SWAC tournament the team bus caught fire on a road trip to Savannah State. Almost all its equipment was destroyed. The last three regular season games were canceled. Ole Miss and Miss State helped replace some equipment while new uniforms and gloves were ordered. At that point the Tigers were 9-15 in conference play. JSU blew through the tournament 4-0. It will face UL at 6 p.m. Friday.

Expect no one to be happier to be here.