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Cajuns baseball preview–part three–the pitchers

photo courtesy ragincajuns.com

OK, here’s the reality of the situation.  Zach Osborne is gone.  He isn’t coming back, and there aren’t any Zach Osbornes on this year’s pitching staff.

Osborne had as good a senior season as any Cajuns’ pitcher ever.  His record was 9-4 (his teammates didn’t give him much help early in the season) with a 2.37 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 121 innings pitched.  Osborne was tough as nails and seemed to pitch his best in the biggest games, evidenced by his performance over Rice in the NCAA Regionals.

OK, we’ve got that out of the way.

The Cajuns will still be good on the bump.  They’ve got talent.  They’ve got depth.  Louisiana has led the league in ERA in 10 of the last 11 seasons and probably will do so again this year.

The biggest questions asked by fans as the 2011 season gets ready to begin is “What’s the weekend rotation going to look like?”

Here’s reality.

What you see next weekend is probably not what you’ll see in May.  It never is.

The year the Cajuns went to Omaha, Justin Gabriel was not in the weekend rotation at the beginning of the season.  Two years ago, Justin Robichaux was a reliever who turned into the Saturday starter.  Robichaux was the Saturday starter opening weekend last year and then became the regular first baseman.

So, whoever the starters are next weekend, make sure you etch them in pencil, because it will probably change.

Coach Tony Robichaux hasn’t named his starters for the weekend as of yet, and probably won’t do so until early next week.  But here’s an educated guess as how the pitching staff will look…at least early

THE STARTERS

Robichaux has about a half dozen options.  T. J. Geith started 15 games for the Cajuns last year and performed well (6-2, 4.67).  He got better as the season progressed and provided a great 1-2 punch with Osborne the second half of the season.  Robichaux likes to split his left-right combinations, though, so Geith will probably go on Saturday.

Don’t be surprised if Joe Zimmerman gets the opening night nod.  Zimmerman is a transfer from UNO who was recruited heavily by the Cajuns before signing with the Privateers.  Zimmerman’s stats weren’t much to write home about, unless you like to write horror stories.  But keep in mind the difficult situation that UNO was in last year, having already announced their intentions to drop to D-III.  That might explain some of the 1-7, 7.59 that Zimmerman put up last year.  But toward the end of the year, Zimmerman was solid.  He handcuffed the Cajuns for six innings last season before Louisiana got to him in the seventh.  He started the game when UNO defeated LSU at Alex Box Stadium, although he didn’t figure in the decision.  And, he threw a complete game shutout against Creighton at Rosenblatt Stadium in last year’s season finale.  Robichaux says Zimmerman’s stuff is similar to Kevin Ardoin.  Zimmerman has pitched sparingly since coming to UL because of a strained muscle in his rib cage.  But every time he’s thrown in intersquads, he’s handled the Cajuns hitters. 

Sunday is a little up in the air, but Robichaux is hoping that Joey Satriano will make the transition from closer to starter.  Satriano was nails out of the pen a year ago (3-0, 2.66, 5 saves).   Satriano is in better shape than he was a year ago, dropping nearly 30 pounds with no appreciable loss in velocity.  He competes on every pitch and Robichaux believes he can be as good on Sunday as anyone in the Sun Belt.

Senior Michael Cook waits in the wings should any of the three falter.  Cook was 3-2, 4;17 in 11 starts last year.  Cook is trying to regain the magic of his freshman season, but reality is he just hasn’t thrown enough strikes the last two seasons to have Robichaux’s full confidence.  Cook needs to cut down, not only on walks, but getting into three ball counts.  He has a nasty breaker, but Cook is most successful when he can work off his fastball.  He’s a prime candidate to be a midweek starter early in the season.

LSU transfer Jordan Nicholson will make his Cajuns’ debut this season after sitting out last year as a transfer from LSU.  The Ruston junior pitched well in the fall and will probably get his opportunity early as a midweek starter.  But he, too, could move into the weekend rotation as he continues to improve.  He’s got pretty good size at 6-1, 195.

Sophomore Chase Traffica (3-3, 3.76) started strong last year, but as the season progressed, he struggled with his location within the strike zone.  He got too many pitches up in the zone and was hit pretty hard.  He had the same problem at times in the fall.  That has to change if he’s going to have a chance to pitch a lot this year.

Robichaux believes the starters won’t have to be supermen this year.  If he can get five or six good innings out of his starters, he’s got enough in the pen to get it done.

THE MIDDLE

The X-factor on the pitching staff is senior lefty Taylor Hubbell.  The Cajuns’ co-captain has shown his capabilities as both a starter and reliver last season, going 4-4 with a save and a 4.42 ERA.  There is no question that Hubbell has the capability to be a weekend starter.  But Robichaux loves his versatility and durability.  The Cajuns skipper is hoping that Hubbell can take on the role of the bridge between the middle and late innings.  He was very effective when used in that role last year.

Robichaux has been pleased by what he’s seen out of RHP Josh Bailey.  Bailey had arm surgery and sat out last year after transferring from Southeastern Louisiana.  The senior has been impressive this spring.  Robichaux will bring him along slowly but says he has starter’s stuff.  He’ll compliment Hubbell well as a middle reliever for now.  Bailey has good velocity and good command.  He’s got a chance to be a real contributor.

Robichaux is hoping that this will be the year that he sees Blake Wascom take a step forward.  Wascom was pitching well as a freshman until being sidelined with a melanoma that required surgery.  He struggled last season, but showed some promise toward the end.  He has good velocity and when he gets ahead of hitters, he can be effective.

You might also see the Cajuns get some quality innings out of lefty Ben Frith, a local product who prepped at Westminster Christian Academy and originally signed with Marshall.  He’s got some quality Divison I experience and can situation pitch if need be.

You’ll also see some young guys in the middle role, probably mostly in midweek, at least for now.  Sophomore sidewinder Manning Duhon threw just one inning last season.  Expect him to get some more work this year.  And two freshman, lefty Kyle Neely (Merryville) and righthander Caleb Kellogg (DeQuincy) both were impressive in the fall.  They’ll get some of that freshmen “seasoning”, probably in the midweek for now.  Redshirt junior Ethan Hebert has yet to pitch for the Cajuns, but was impressive enough to make the final roster.  He’ll probably get work in this role as well.

AT THE END

He won’t strike fear into the opposition when he comes in from the bullpen.  In fact, the other team might double over in laughter.

That would be a mistake.

Because when he comes in, Matt Hicks is coming to hunt you.

Hicks is a freshman.  He’s listed as 5-7, 160.  That might be generous.  But Robichaux has fallen in love with the kid whose teammates say is the hardest worker on the ball club.  Hicks has a closer’s mentality, throws three pitches for strikes and has great command within the zone.  He isn’t going to break the radar gun, but he throws hard enough.  The fact that he’s getting the first opportunity to be the ninth inning guy tells you everything about his makeup.

Senior Ryland Parker was miserable in his only start of the season.  He was very very good in his14 appearances out of the pen.  Parker held the opposition to a miniscule .167 batting average and posted a 2-1 record with two saves and a 2.83 ERA.  Parker threw a lot this summer and Robichaux held him out all fall to let him rest.  As a result, he’s a little behind right now getting his command back.  But Parker competes and in time could provide a great closer combo with Hicks.

Another senior, Randall Bulliard has all the tools to be an effective late inning pitcher.  He was 0-1 with a save and an ERA of 3.23.  Opponents only hit .227 against him.  Bulliard throws it in the low 90′s and has a good breaking ball.  He’s been inconsistent throughout his career, however, and that needs to change if Robichaux is going to trust him in big games.  He’ll get the chance to show that he can perform consistently.

Freshman Jacques De Gruy, who originally signed with Tulane is a question mark to pitch this year after throwing a lot of innings in high school and during the summer.  He has a redshirt available.  He will be a major contributor at some point in his career if healthy.

Nope.  There’s no Zach here.  But there’s plenty of talent.  And, plenty of versatility.  When the pieces fall into place, this will be a solid pitching staff.  Robichaux would love it, however, if a couple of guys would step forward and separate themselves from their teammates.  Until that happens, Robichaux will use trial and error to figure it out.

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