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WEEKEND PREVIEW: Ragin’ Cajuns at Alabama

GENERAL INFO

  • What: Ragin’ Cajuns (4-4) vs. No. 25 Alabama (6-2)
  • When: 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (Hoover, Ala.), capacity 10,500
  • Starting pitchers
    • Friday — Cajuns: Fr. RHP Evan Guillory (1-0, 2.80), Alabama: Sr. LHP Taylor Guilbeau (1-1, 2.25 ERA)
    • Saturday — Cajuns: Sr. RHP Greg Milhorn (0-0, 2.70), Alabama: Jr. RHP Will Carter (1-0, 2.61)
    • Sunday — Cajuns: TBA, Alabama: So. RHP Geoffrey Bramblett (2-0, 2.19 ERA)
  • Radio play-by-play: Friday: 1420 AM, Dan McDonald, Saturday/Sunday: 96.5 FM, Dan McDonald
  • TV: SEC Network +
  • Internet streaming options: All three games will stream on ESPN3
  • On deck: Northwestern State, 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 4
  • In the hole: Troy, March 6-8 (SBC opener)

LINKS TO KNOW

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

  • The Cajuns took two of three last year against Alabama at home … but that was last year. This year, coach Tony Robichaux is hopeful that his young team gains some valuable experience in a road environment against a talented team. He obviously wants his squad to come away with a series win, but more importantly, he wants his team to learn a lesson from playing a tough team in a challenging environment, even if that means taking one on the chin.

WHAT TO WATCH

  • Alabama has a pair of local products who will likely play prominent roles this weekend. First baseman Chance Vincent played his high school ball at Acadiana High, and while he’s gotten off to a slow start this season (five hits in 31 at bats), he’s third on the team with seven runs driven in this year. The Tide’s Friday starter, Taylor Guilbeau, prepped at Zachary High School, a little more than an hour away from Lafayette.
  • How will the Cajuns’ freshman arms fare against top-notch competition? They’ve performed at a high level since the Cajuns dropped two of three in their season-opening series against UTSA, but Alabama will be far and away the most challenging lineup they’ve faced to date. Pay close attention to how Evan Guillory, the Cajuns Friday starter, pitches. He’s been the Cajuns best starter through the first few weeks.
  • After two up and down performances, it looks like Chris Charpentier’s days in the weekend rotation are over — for now at least. The Cajuns will use a Johnny Allstaff approach Sunday, likely getting through the game by using one pitcher per inning. Robichaux will announce the starter Saturday after he’s gauged what’s left of his bullpen, but that is in title only. The Cajuns specifically want to get a look at freshman Connor Toups, who has not yet pitched this year.

KNOW YOUR OPPONENT

  • Alabama sophomore right-fielder Casey Hughston has gotten off to a torrid start for the Tide. He leads the SEC in batting average (.636!!!), slugging percentage (1.061), hits (21), doubles (6), RBI (15), and total bases (35). He’s not the only member of the lineup that’s been wrecking opposing pitching, though. Kyle Overstreet is hitting .406 and has 14 RBI of his own, speedster Georgie Salem is leading the conference in stolen bases (8), and slick-fielding shortstop Mikey White is getting it done at the plate as well (.345 batting average).

Ragin’ Cajuns sidearmer Colton Lee and his secret weapon

There are two keys to being a secret weapon.

First, you have to be relatively unknown. That’s still the case with Cajuns right-hander Colton Lee, who has risen from nearly quitting the game in obscurity to be a late-inning workhorse for the Cajuns through the first eight games.

Second, you have to have a secret weapon of your own, and Lee has just that in his slider, a sweeping thing of destructive beauty.

“It’s almost like it’s got a battery in it,” said catcher Nick Thurman. “Whenever he throws it, it’ll start at or behind a right-handed hitter, and it’s almost like it catches a ramp and it shoots across the zone.”

And the beauty of Lee’s slider? It’s not fully developed yet. Nothing, actually, about the sidearmer is fully developed yet. He’s only been pitching for two years.

It starts with a highly unorthodox grip — Lee sets the ball deep into his hand and places his thumb on top of the ball next to his index and middle finger rather than beneath it.

It looks funky, almost like a palmball, and it caught Lee some weird looks from the Cajuns coaching staff last fall.

“I showed (assistant pitching coach Daniel) Freeman how I hold it and he looked at me like I was stupid,” Lee said. “He was just like, ‘Well, whatever works.’ He made me show coach Robe, and coach Robe looked at me like I was stupid, but he said, ‘If it works, I don’t care what you do. I don’t care if you go up there blindfolded, as long as you throw strikes.’”

Lee said both the thumb-on-top grip and the fact that it is set deeper in his hand enhance his control of the pitch. Perhaps that also helps him get the wicked spin on it. He’s tried throwing his slider, as he terms it, like “a real pitcher,” but never with the same results.

“I’ve tried,” Lee said. “I go three or four days trying, and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I changing what’s working?’ Obviously I’m doing something right, so why would I change it up?”

Why would he? When he’s throwing it for strikes, it is the most lethal pitch in his repertoire. It is a true slider that sweeps across the zone, but the key is that the movement is late in the path of the pitch, not giving hitters time to diagnose what’s coming.

“He has both (late movement and depth),” Thurman said. “It comes out and breaks so late that a lot of hitters give up on it. It has late, late break and it breaks a lot. It’ll start on the inside half and shoot almost out of the zone. It’s almost unhittable unless he doesn’t get all that movement that he normally has on it.”

He used the slider often in his last appearance against McNeese State, but that was his first time this season where he used all three pitches at his disposal.

Lee can count the number of off-speed pitches he threw in his first three outings on one hand – the number is four, by the way, three sliders and one changeup.

He was finding success with his two-seam fastball, which tails down and in on a right-hander, inducing ground balls and swings and misses.

“He’s from down low, so his fastball has a lot of run toward the inside of a righty and down, which is good,” Thurman said. “It’s caused a lot of ground balls.”

He’s been working on his changeup, which he added to his repertoire this offseason, a process he says has been difficult. But it’s improving.

“That pitch is starting to get a lot better,” Thurman said. “He’s starting to be able to place it and throw it for strikes, and also whenever he needs to, to get it down low to where they’ll be able to swing over the top of it.”

But his knee-buckling slider is his moneymaker, the one that’s still — like nearly everything with Lee — in the early stages of development.

Now all that remains to be seen is how long Lee and his slider can remain a secret.


 

DEVELOPMENT THROUGH THE YEARS

Here’s a year-by-year look at Lee’s development as a pitcher. He was a high school infielder who transitioned to pitching in his freshman year of junior college — and he had a rough go of it. He was cut after his lone season at Southwest Mississippi, and his baseball career was on its last legs at Pearl River. But there, Lee switched to a sidearm delivery, and he’s found new life.

2013 season at Southwest Mississippi CC

1-1, 17.2 IP, 21 H, 22 R, 16 ER, 10 BB, 20 K, 6.34 ERA

2014 season at Pearl River CC

1-2, 36.1 IP, 32 H, 19 R, 11 ER, 15 BB, 26 K, 2.72 ERA, 2 saves

2015 season with the Ragin’ Cajuns

0-0, 10.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 11 K, 0.87 ERA, 2 saves


 

PITCH TO CONTACT — UNLESS THEY CAN’T HIT IT

Lee’s strikeout numbers are at a career-best rate through four appearances, but it’s not specifically what he excels at. Coach Tony Robichaux likes how aggressive he is in the strike zone, where the sinking movement on his other pitches induces plenty of ground ball outs. Here is a game-by-game look at how Lee’s outs break down.

Feb. 14 @ UTSA: 2.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K

  • Eight batters faced, 3 fly outs, 3 ground outs

Feb. 18 @ Northwestern State: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K

  • Five batters faced, 3 ground outs

Feb. 20 vs Stony Brook: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K

  • 10 batters faced, 1 fly out, 5 ground outs

Feb 24 vs McNeese State: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

  • 14 batters faced, 1 fly out, 3 ground outs

Season break down: 37 batters faced, 5 H, 2 BB, 11 K, 5 fly outs, 14 ground outs

That gives Lee a ground ball percentage (ground balls/balls in play) of 58.3 percent. That’s good. It’s a small sample size, and the level of talent is obviously different, but just for a base of reference, if that were being done in the major leagues, it would’ve qualified as the third highest percentage in the league.

Coach Speak: Tony Robichaux on the McNeese State loss

Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux spoke to members of the media at a press luncheon today, and based on his opening statement, the last thing on his mind is a milestone 1,000th win. Robichaux said during his press conference that the wins all get credited to the players anyway — the only thing on his record are the losses.

Here is Robichaux’ opening statement in its entirety. He speaks about how well his young pitching staff has performed lately and needing his more experienced players to come through in situations where their experience benefits them.

TONY ROBICHAUX – February 25, 2015

First of all, it’s not really about one more win or 1,000 wins, because that’s never been our goal – or a goal. To be clear, our No. 1 goal is to keep getting better, to develop these young pitchers that we have. Six of the nine guys that were in our batting order last year are gone, so we need to keep trying to find ourselves, find guys that can step up and help in critical situations. Guys that were playing backup roles last year that are now playing every day, now starting to be able to see what it is like to shoulder some burden. Those are the things we’ve got to get better at.

Our pitching threw well last night, has thrown well. We’ve gotten better since UTSA, which is really good. We gave up two earned runs last night through 17. Wyatt Marks came in and threw well, Gunner threw really well – we kind of victimized him a little bit along the way with an error here, an error there.

Our biggest goal is we’ve got to get the older guys to lock down where they are. Our goal starting the season was we knew we’d be young on the mound, that we’d have to try wherever we had age to lock those areas down. We had opportunities to make some plays that we didn’t make, we also had some opportunities to drive some runs that we just didn’t get driven in in critical times of the game. That’s the difference between being a platoon player last year, or a bench player last year, and now up front every day. The game changes.

That’s our No. 1 goal. I’ll say it again, it’s never been about 1,000 wins. I get the losses, to be clear, I don’t get the wins. The players get the wins, I get the losses. It’s not about one win, it’s not about ‘Well, we’re disappointed because we didn’t get 1,000 last night.’ I’m disappointed because we didn’t get the job done last night. We didn’t get a run driven in, we botched a squeeze, there’s some things that we did that we’ve got to get better at along the way. That’s my concern, and I think we will get better in those areas the more we play.

This weekend will be a very tough and demanding weekend for us, weather wise, who we’re playing, everything. It’s all a good step in the fist fight, the brawl, trying to get weathered and trying to get young guys tough. Sometimes a tough guy doesn’t always have a clean looking face, he’s got some scars. That’s part of what makes him tough.

We look forward to that this weekend. I’m glad that our pitching is really starting to settle down a little bit. We threw a lot of guys last night out of the bullpen, some got in some critical situations and did some really good things. Early in the year, Riley (Cooper) let a guy walk right out of first base on us at UTSA and steal, since then he’s picked one guy off and last night a wrap move in a critical situation. That means they’re starting to get better, they’re starting to pick up pieces of the game that we need them to get better at.

Again, this will be demanding for us, we’re back to work today in the indoor, then out tomorrow morning around 8 a.m. We’ll see what the weather presents us when we get down into Alabama.

Three up, three down: McNeese State 5, Ragin’ Cajuns 4 (17)

The Cajuns had plenty of opportunities in a 5-4 extra (extra!) innings loss to McNeese that took five hours and 16 minutes to complete, but they couldn’t find the big hit when they needed it.

Here are a look at three things that went well for the Cajuns Tuesday night, and three things that didn’t go so well, a blog post we’ll call Three Up, Three Down, as well  as links to our coverage from the game and other things that may interest me. First off, our coverage — we worked hard for this stuff Tuesday night.

GAME STORY: Tony Robichaux remains one win shy of 1,000 wins as Cajuns fall to McNeese in 17 innings

#TwitterlessDanMcDonaldNotebook: Robichaux more irked by miscues than missing out on 1,000th win

THREE UP

  1. RELIEF PITCHING: The Cajuns relievers may have laid an egg on opening weekend, but they’ve been nothing short of phenomenal since. That continued Tuesday night. Six Cajuns relievers combined to pitch 13 innings of baseball, giving up just one earned run in the process. JUCO transfer Colton Lee and Freshmen Wyatt Marks and Dylan Moore were especially fantastic, striking out 12 in 10.1 innings of work.
  2. NICK THURMAN: The Cajuns as a whole might’ve struggled in clutch moments Tuesday, but you can put an asterisk next to Thurman’s name. He delivered a booming two-out triple in the 10th inning, then scored the tying run on a balk to keep the Cajuns in the game after the Cowboys scored in the top of the frame. Thurman also blooped an opposite field double in the 15th inning that gave the Cajuns another great opportunity to score. Oh, by the way, HE CAUGHT ALL 17 INNINGS. That ain’t easy. Despite a costly error in the first inning that led to a run, Thurman was great there too, catching one runner straying too far from the bag, throwing out one attempted steal and managing to keep every one of the 265 Cajuns pitches in front of him.
  3. WYATT MARKS: That was one hell of a way to debut at home for the Cajuns freshman pitcher. He allowed one base runner in 2.2 innings of work and struck out five — including one inning where he struck out the side with some filthy breaking balls. The Cajuns appear to have struck gold with some of their freshman arms. Add Marks to the growing list that includes Moore, Gunner Leger (four more solid innings tonight), Evan Guillory, Riley Cooper and Logan Stoelke (tonight’s hard-luck loser).

THREE DOWN

  1. CLUTCH HITTING: The Cajuns had no problem getting men on base, but they couldn’t seem to buy a clutch hit. It especially hurt near the bottom of the order, where Nos. 8 and 9 hitters Kyle Clement and Dylan Butler went 0-4 with three strikeouts when the bases were loaded. In the final 12 innings — of which, the game was tied for 10 — the Cajuns had the go-ahead run at third base five times, four of which came with one out.
  2. DEFENSIVE MISCUES: The Cajuns committed four errors Tuesday night, all of which led to McNeese State runs. Thurman’s throwing error after a strikeout in the first allowed a runner to score, Kris Molter reached on an error by Brenn Conrad in the fourth, then scored when Dylan Butler booted a ball in the outfield in the same inning, and Blake Trahan’s 17th inning error ended up being the winning run.
  3. DEFLATING MOMENT: The Cajuns best shot may have come in the 11th, when Clement hammered a double to right-center field, then moved to third base on Butler’s sacrifice bunt. It brought up Blake Trahan, who had a nice night at the plate, and forced McNeese to either walk Trahan and have right-handed pitcher Steven O’Bryant throw to left-handed Brenn Conrad, or take their chances with the Cajuns best hitter. They chose option C; neither. While it looked like McNeese was opting to walk Trahan, coach Justin Hill said after the game that they were actually calling a pitch out in case Clement broke for home. It paid off, and the Cowboys caught Clement in a rundown, eventually tagging him out and ending the threat.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

  • “It was a pillow fight at the plate,” said Tony Robichaux, no elaboration needed.

STAT OF THE NIGHT

  • 543
  • The number of pitches the two teams combined to throw Tuesday night, which some poor schmuck had to chart.

WISDOM GAINED

  • An ice-cold beer is so much more satisfying after seven hours of covering baseball than it is during two hours of watching baseball in the stands.

 

Ragin’ Cajuns vs. McNeese State – aka the Tony1K game

General Info

  • What: Ragin’ Cajuns (4-3) vs. McNeese State (4-4)
  • When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
  • Where: M.L. “Tigue” Moore Stadium
  • Starting pitchers: Cajuns LHP Gunner Leger (1-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. McNeese State junior RHP Ethan Strammel (0-0, 3.37 ERA)
  • Radio play-by-play: 1420 AM, Jay Walker
  • TV: None
  • Internet streaming options: None
  • In-game updates on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonAdv
  • On deck: at Alabama, February 27-March 1
  • In the hole: vs. Northwestern State, 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 4

Links To Know

What’s At Stake

  • If the Cajuns win tonight, coach Tony Robichaux would become the 18th active coach in college baseball to reach 1,000 career wins — and sweeter, he would do it against the team he started his coaching career with.
  • The Cajuns have won six consecutive games against McNeese State.

WHAT TO WATCH

  • Outfielders: The Cajuns are rolling with a starting outfield of Kyle Clement (RF), Joe Robbins (CF) and Dylan Butler (LF) tonight. Clement and Butler were projected before the season to be starting outfielders, but neither has been able to get much going offensively. Butler is hitless in 10 at bats, and Clement has two hits in 12 at bats. They’re two of the Cajuns more experienced hitters, and the Cajuns could really benefit from them returning to form.
  • Quick fire Gunner: Freshman LHP Gunner Leger is getting his second start of the season after pitching really well in his first career start against Northwestern State last week. Watch how Robichaux handles him — it’s possible that Leger could take Chris Charpentier’s spot in the weekend rotation as early as this weekend. Leger could treat this game as a sort of bullpen session before a possible road start this weekend against Alabama.

Know Your Opponent

  • McNeese State jumped out to a 4-0 record, but has lost four straight games, including three straight shutouts. The Cowboys have been outscored 23-2 during their four-game losing streak.

Lineups

Ragin’ Cajuns (4-3)

  1. Blake Trahan, SS (.286)
  2. Brenn Conrad, 2B (.350)
  3. Greg Davis, 1B (.333)
  4. Tyler Girouard, 3B (.238)
  5. Joe Robbins, CF (.320)
  6. Nick Thurman, C (.500)
  7. Stefan Trosclair, DH (.304)
  8. Kyle Clement, RF (.167)
  9. Dylan Butler, LF (.000)

SP: LHP Gunner Leger (1-0, 4.50 ERA, 6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 K)

McNeese State (4-4)

  1. Andrew Guillotte, CF (.214)
  2. Billy Sommers, DH (.235)
  3. Connor Crane, 1B (.367)
  4. Lewis Guilbeau, LF (.318)
  5. Kris Molter, SS (.143)
  6. Connor Lloyd, 2B (.217)
  7. Lucas Quary, RF (.077)
  8. Matt Gallier, 3B (.222)
  9. Cameron Toole, C (.381)

SP: RHP Ethan Stremmel (0-0, 3.37 ERA, 2.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K)