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From the Bird’s Nest: A classic game one

Last night’s game between Louisiana and Florida Atlantic is one you would expect from two teams that tied for the Sun Belt Conference championship a year ago.  If you remember, last year’s games were low scoring, two of them decided by one run.  FAU was the preseason pick to win the league, and last night’s performance notwithstanding, it’s easy to understand why.  The Owls return eight of nine starters offensively, and the newcomer, Alex Hudek, is leading the league in hitting.  FAU lost their best pitcher, Mike Gipson, who was their Saturday starter.  His replacement, Paul Davis, is leading the league in ERA.  (Davis will pitch tonight.)

In a series that promises to be close, little things will decide the series winner.  And, little things propelled the Cajuns to a 2-1 victory last night.

Tony Robichaux has preached the same gospel for seventeen seasons.  Pitch well, play good defense and get the timely hit.  Last night was a microcosm of that philosophy.

Ryan Garton, the Owls starting pitcher, struggled in the early innings.  He threw a lot of pitches, which were a credit to the Cajuns hitters.  They did a very good job of being selective early, and when Garton didn’t have full command of the strike zone in the first three innings, the Cajuns were patient and fouled off a lot of pitches.  The result didn’t manifest itself in runs across the plate, but Louisiana succeeded in getting Garton’s pitch count up, which may have paid a dividend later.

Taylor Hubbell, meanwhile, was masterful during his time on the mound.  He carved up the second best hitting team in the Sun Belt by keeping them off balance.  He mixed his two seam fastball with an excellent change and occasional curve ball and allowed only one hit through the first four innings.  Both pitchers allowed a run early and both came because of a free baserunner.  Lance Marvel walked in the second inning, stole second and came home on Tyler Frederick’s single to give the Cajuns a 1-0 lead.  But FAU bounced back when Hubbell hit #9 hitter Colby Gratton with a pitch with two out after retiring the first eight batters of the game.  With Gratton running, Raymond Church lifted a high fly ball to short center that Alex Fuselier couldn’t catch up to, allowing Gratton to tie the game.

Hubbell had to leave the game after the fifth inning after being hit by a line drive off the bat of Church.  It was the only time Hubbell was in trouble all night.  He allowed back to back singles to Eddie Cassidy and Nick Delguidice and then struck out the next two hitters before Church’s liner deflected off Hubbell and was fielded by Jordan Porrier, who threw to Frederick for the third out.

The Cajuns finally broke through in the seventh off  Garton.  After Jordan Bourque flied to right to start the seventh, Garton hit Alex Fuselier with a pitch.  By now Garton was at the 110 pitch mark.  With Fuselier on base for the first time (he’s among the league leaders in on-base percentage) you just had a feeling something was about to happen.  Cajuns shortstop Greg Fontenot was a gametime decision to play after aggravating a hamstring injury against Northwestern State (after lashing a two run single to break the game open.)   The last two seasons, there’s been no better clutch hitter than Fontenot, an unlikely hero who was recruited to be mostly a backup player (read:  Devin Bourque).  But Fontenot worked his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore and has never looked back.  His knack for getting the really big hit started last season when he knocked in nearly 40 runs hitting in the nine hole.  Fontenot promptly lashed a double over the head of centerfielder Gratton that rolled to the wall.  Fuselier scored easily from first.  A healthy Fontenot would have been on third base, but he settled for a double.  That would be all the Cajuns would need.

Joey Satriano came into the game in the sixth when Hubbell had to be lifted.  He had to warm up on short notice.  He gave up a two out single in the sixth and allowed a one out single in the ninth.  But Michael Strentz threw out FAU’s pinch runner attempting to steal and Satriano got the final out by getting Cassidy on a called third strike to preserve the 2-1 win.  Meanwhile, the Cajun pitchers limited FAU to five singles and allowed two hits in an inning only once.  Cajun pitchers gave up only two free baserunners on a hit batsman (who came in to score) and a two out walk in the seventh.

The Cajuns have now won six of their last seven and it is no coincidence that in those six wins they have played errorless baseball.  Last night they made every play.  Jordan Bourque made two really nice plays on hard hit grounders, keeping his head down and fielding flawlessly.  He did make one bad throw on the run, but Tyler Frederick made a nice play at first for the save.  Fontenot threw out two from the hole at short and Porrier did a nice job on the ricochet off Hubbell, changing direction to field and throw out the speedy Church.  The team fielding percentage is approaching .975 and that would be the best since I can remember…maybe ever. 

Tonight’s pitching matchup certainly favors the Owls.  Paul Davis is 5-0 and his ERA is the best in the Sun Belt.  Joe Zimmerman will start for the Cajuns.  Jordan Nicholson has a little soreness in his elbow, although Robichaux hasn’t ruled out using him in a short stint.  This might be the day you see Robe have a quick hook.  Cajuns runs might be hard to come by and Tony has a pretty fully stocked bullpen.  Randall Bulliard, Blake Wascom and Caleb Kellogg will all be available.  I don’t expect Tony to use Matt Hicks unless it’s a tight game late.  Tonight the Cajuns will have to execute on offense, move runners when they get them and get some timely hits.  Good defense will again be paramount.

Pitching, defense and timely hitting.  That was the story of the game last night.  And, when you get down to it, the Cajuns timely hit went in the gap.  The Owls timely hit may have knocked Taylor Hubbell out of the game, but it didn’t bring in a run.

Gamtime tonight at 6:05.  Pregame at 5:35 on espn1420 and 96.5 KPEL.  But if tonight’s game is anything like last night’s you probably want to bring that radio to the “Tigue.”  This one just might be worth seeing.

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