Cajuns Baseball – Very Few Saw This Coming
Okay, raise your hand if, before the 2013 season started, you thought this Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns baseball team would win 43 games and play in the championship round of a regional.
Go ahead. Raise your hand.
Ok, Tony, you can put yours down. You too, Bab, Deaux, Harvey and Matt. You guys on the roster can, too.
Didn't think so.
Sometimes unexpected surprises are the best. And for many Cajuns baseball fans, 2013 was a heck of a ride.
Last year, the Cajuns were 23-30. They finished last in the Sun Belt Conference. Last. As in 10th. Their season ended with a humiliating 17-0 loss to Louisiana-Monroe in their finale at Tigue Moore Field.
While fans bemoaned the rough season, Tony Robichaux and his staff went to work to make certain it wouldn't happen again. They hit the recruiting trail, determined to improve their athleticism and power numbers. They were also determined to make their young players better.
But the summer and fall threatened to put a damper on their hopes. Jordan Harrison signed a professional contract. Chris Griffitt was on the shelf with a tired arm. Ben Carter, who missed the entire 2012 season, wasn't ready. Seth Harrison, a newcomer who was counted on to provide late inning relief help as a two way player, couldn't pitch. Chase Traffica was a huge question mark coming off Tommy John surgery. Closer Caleb Kellogg was suspended for the season and then transferred.
During the fall, it was apparent the Cajuns' offense would be better. But, you know what it's like when you do intersquad. Is your hitting that good...or is your pitching that bad?
As spring approached, Robichaux felt like the Cajuns would hit. But what about that pitching staff? Griffitt still wasn't ready. Carter was cleared to pitch, but didn't really have his good stuff. Harrison wasn't ready to pitch although he could play the outfield. Traffica was still a question mark. And, oh, did I mention Matt Hicks had a bad back?
The Sun Belt coaches looked at this Cajuns team and decided they would be in the conference tournament they would be hosting. Barely. They said eighth place.
Personally, I went into the season feeling the Cajuns would be better, but I didn't know how much better. I thought they might be as good as a middle of the pack team. But no better. There were just too many improvements to be made.
It was obvious to the coaches, however, that this team could be good. The young players from a year ago were better. The newcomers would be big contributors. Defensively they would be better. And, unlike last year, they would have some quality depth.
I looked today at my scorebook from opening day. Not in the lineup were players who would account for 174 hits, 31 homers and 138 RBI. That's depth. And, before long, Dylan Butler, Tyler Girouard and Caleb Adams would work their way into the lineup.
As the season unfolded, it became apparent this team was going to be a lot of fun to watch. They could hit. They could run. They were athletic. They could play defense.
And, they had Blake Trahan.
The freshman from Kinder was in the opening day lineup and before the season was over, he'd become a crowd favorite. Outstanding defensively with great range, Trahan not only made the routine plays, he made some spectacular ones. And, he was better offensively than most thought he would be his freshman season. He hit around the .330 mark most of the season. He walked more than he struck out. And, he got plenty of clutch hits, on his way to being named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
Deggs' hitting system was working. The team was hitting up and down the lineup. And, Robichaux showed why he is one of the country's best pitching coaches, finding a way to maneuver his pitching staff to get one performance after another.
Ryan Wilson took his place in the weekend rotation. And, then went to the bullpen. Then did both. Austin Robichaux became perhaps the league's best pitcher. Cody Boutte was good enough to tie for the league lead in wins, despite a couple of tough outings. Hicks set a school record for saves, despite a couple of tough appearances. Matt Plitt became a reliable mid week starter. Ben Carter and Kendall Mayer were better than expected. In Mayer's case, much better.
Without a couple of late inning losses, the Cajuns would have been conference champions on a team with just two seniors, both relief pitchers. They led the nation in homers and slugging percentage and were in the top five in scoring and hitting. Defensively, they tied a school record by turning 66 double plays. They had seven players named all-conference.
But what hooked the fans this year was the Cajuns attitude. They were relentless offensively. Their pitching staff, thin as it was, pitched with some arrogance.
But what made this team special, and one of the most fun teams to cover on a daily basis, was the team itself.
Tony Robichaux has said for years, "Chemistry can make a great team average or an average team great." And, the chemistry on this team was as good as any in Robichaux's 19 years as the head coach. This was a team that had no egos. They supported each other, defended each other and cared about each other. They had leadership and they had attitude. They were a loose bunch who were, quite simply, together. I was fortunate to notice it especially when traveling with this group. These guys were special.
We don't know what's going to happen next. Dex Kjerstad, whose 99 hits this season were the second most in school history, will be drafted. So will Seth Harrison, especially if he can come back as a pitcher. And, Michael Strentz is a draft eligible sophomore. Scouts love his athleticism and mental makeup. All three will have a decision to make.
There are pitchers on the way the coaches feel will be major contributors next year. And, that's the missing piece to the puzzle. Those guys have to make the staff deeper and better. And, they need to do it without messing with team chemistry.
Expectations will be high next year. But that's the way Cajuns fans, coaches and players want it.
In the meantime, this was one helluva fun ride.