From the Bird’s Nest: Really. Good. Baseball
As you may have deduced by reading my blogs leading up to the weekend, I get just a little geeked when Louisiana and South Alabama play baseball. I was really looking forward to the series, knowing that the two teams would battle hard. I maintain that today’s players don’t quite understand the history between the two schools (and the coaches and many others agree.) But the series means a lot to the coaches, many of the fans…and me.
It was kind of a bittersweet weekend. Steve Kittrell, the veteran South Alabama coach, was making his final visit to M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field. Kittrell announced after last season that 2011 would be his last. South Alabama hired Mark Calvi, the pitching coach at South Carolina (and former assistant at FIU) to be Kittrell’s replacement. I visited with Coach Kittrell before each game. Kittrell is a fiery competitor who learned his baseball from Eddie Stanky. Kittrell over the years probably stormed out of the dugout to confront umpires more than any coach I’ve seen since covering the Cajuns. We reminisced quite a bit about the games over the years between the two teams. On Friday, he lamented that his third baseman, Jake Overstreet, had received a three game suspension because of an altercation with a UALR player the previous weekend. “He never hit anyone,” Kittrell said. “I don’t understand why he got three games for a push.” I suggested that perhaps those officials should have been present at the series in 1992 and Kittrell laughed out loud. That was the series when a full scale brawl ensued after Papo Ramos charged the mound after being hit by a pitch from Jon Lieber.
Then it was down to business for game one. Garrett Harris faced Taylor Hubbell, a rematch of the Saturday game a year ago in Mobile. Both pitchers were very, very good. Harris pitched a complete game six hitter. Hubbell allowed just four hits in seven innings. South Alabama got on the board when Brad Hook was hit by a pitch with two outs. Then the Cajuns made a defensive mistake as Daniel Nichols played a single into a triple by not keeping the ball in front of him. He tried to make a diving catch, when pulling up and playing it safe was the right move to make. 1-0 Jags.
In the fifth, Hubbell made a couple of mistakes, walking two men with two out. Then Brent Tanner, the Jags best hitter, hit a 3-2 CHANGEUP over Mike Petello’s head to score two runs. It was a great piece of hitting on a tough pitch. But the walks came back to haunt Hubbell and the Jags led 3-0.
Meanwhile, the Cajuns were getting nothing off Harris, who mowed down the Cajuns on just two hits through five innings. Freshman Michael Strentz got the Cajuns on the board with a solo homer in the sixth. The Cajuns got a leadoff single and had two on with one out, but Jordan Bourque hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. In the eighth, the Cajuns got two on with two out but Jordan Porrier flew out to center field.
In the ninth, Lance Marvel doubled with one out. After Daniel Nichols struck out, Bourque walked. Strentz then hit one to the deepest part of the ball park, but it was caught on the warning track to end the game.
Cajuns had a couple of chances late, but not many. Jags took advantage of their one opportunity and won the game 3-1. A frustrating loss, but a well-pitched game by Harris and Hubbell. South had five hits, the Cajuns six. Both teams played errorless ball. Cajuns shortstop Greg Fontenot, in fact, made as good a play as we’ve seen all season when he dove to his left on a ball hit up the middle, got up, did a 360 and fired to first to get the out.
On Saturday, another visit with Coach Kittrell. He said he felt lucky to win Friday night. He praised Hubbell who shut down the offense. South Alabama had been scoring at will the last half dozen games and Kittrell acted a little surprised that the Jaguars got so little done offensively. He also said he thought he had blown the game when Strentz’ fly ball left the bat. He had planned to take Harris out of the game before the at-bat but Harris talked him out of it.
Charlie Nichols is the baseball SID at South Alabama. We visited before each game and Saturday he mentioned that Joey Choron was their strength and conditioning coach. Choron played for the Jaguars in 1997-98 and was a heckuva second baseman who hit in the middle of the Jags’ lineup. He was one (of many) players I didn’t like much when he was playing, but I sure respected him. Nichols said that Choron was one of those who believed that the South Alabama players didn’t “get it” when it came to playing against the Cajuns.
If there were two games I could choose to epitomize the long time series between the two clubs, Saturday and Sunday could easily be the choices.
Saturday the Jaguars got to Joe Zimmerman early. Brent Tanner’s two out single in the first inning scored a run. The Jags got two more hits in the second but failed to score. A Jake Overstreet bunt single (imagine that, the Jags bunting for a hit) started a rally and after two more hits brought in a run, Louisiana Coach Tony Robichaux had seen enough and brought in Chase Traffica. The sophomore from Birmingham gave up a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0 but allowed no further damage that inning.
The Cajuns got a one out triple in the fourth, but didn’t score. South Alabama added a run in the fifth on a two out walk to Tanner and a run scoring double by Jordan Patterson to make it 4-0. The Cajuns finally got on the board in their half of the sixth on a double by Gren Fontenot and a single by Jordan Porrier. But South Alabama got the run right back. A walk and a single put runners on first and second with no outs. With the count 3-2 to Nolan Earley, South Alabama started the runners, which prevented the Cajuns from turning a double play on Earley’s ground ball to second. The Cajuns intentionally walked Tanner, but South Alabama got a run when Tyler Frederick threw wide to home on Patterson’s grounder. The Cajuns got a 5-2-3 double play to get out of the inning with no further damage.
Trailing 5-1 in the eighth, the Cajuns put it all together. Fuselier singled and Fontenot doubled to put runners at second and third with no outs. Porrier lined out, but Petello singled to make it 5-2. That ended Dustin Crenshaw’s day and finally the Cajuns were in the USA bullpen, which is the soft underbelly of the Jaguars’ squad. Kyle Dees came on and walked Marvel to load the bases. Strentz struck out, but Dees hit Bourque with a pitch to make it 5-3 and then walked pinch hitter Ryan Leonards to get the Cajuns within one run. Philip Byrd entered the game on the mound and Matt Goulas greeted him with a two run single to give the Cajuns a 6-5 lead. The dugout erupted on the hit and all the players pointed at the popular Cajuns’ captain, who had been used sparingly of late. Robichaux put him in the lineup hoping he’d give the Cajuns a spark.
Goulas didn’t disappoint.
In a perfect world, it would have ended there. But in the ninth, Caleb Kellogg walked Taylor White to lead off the inning. With White on the move, Overstreet hit a grounder to second, but Porrier rushed the throw to Fontenot and everyone was safe. Earley then sliced a double down the left field line to tie the game and Tanner was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Typical South Alabama.
Tie game, bases loaded, no outs. Robichaux summoned Joey Satriano who had worked two innings on Friday night.
Four pitches later the Cajuns were in the dugout.
Patterson hit Satriano’s first pitch to Trask Switzenberg, who had taken over at first base for Frederick. Switz threw home for the force and got back tot he bag to take Strentz’ throw for the double play. Satriano then struck out the next hitter on three pitches and the Cajuns had life.
The Cajuns got two men on in the tenth with one out but didn’t score. USA got the first two on in the eleventh but Satriano struck out the next three.
The Cajuns won it in the bottom of the eleventh on two-out singles by Petello, pinch hitter Chris Sinclair and Strentz, who had nearly won it for the Cajuns the night before.
So many Cajuns/Jaguars games over the years have been decided by late-inning comebacks. The Cajuns added to that history on Saturday night.
Sunday morning I visited with Coach Kittrell for the last time. We talked some about the series and the Jaguars’ trips to Tigue Moore Field. Kittrell said he’d always remember the competition and the fans in Lafayette. He also said he might come back as a fan just to hang out with the Cajun Cooking Club.
I also met Choron. He hit 21 homers in the 1997 season for the Jaguars. Pretty good output for a second baseman. He talked about how much he hated the Cajuns during his time at USA. Surprisingly, he singled out the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Oswaldo Aguirre. He said he hated him because he was “a helluva hitter.” I told him that Oswaldo had been at the game the previous day and Joey said he regretted not seeing him. Choron also said the USA players just “didn’t understand the history” between the two teams. He said they were talking about Troy on the way over and he said “to hell with Troy, THIS is the team you want to beat.”
The Cajuns’ coaching staff presented Kittrell with a rod and reel before the game. Steve was touched, to say the least, that he would be honored at, of all places, “Tigue” Moore Field. It being Easter Sunday, there weren’t many fans there at the beginning of the game, but those that were there gave Kittrell a standing ovation. He tipped his cap and it was time to play.
The Cajuns got two runs in the first inning on a double steal and an RBI single by Marvel. Meanwhile, Cajuns starter T. J. Geith gave up five hits in the first three innings but kept the Jaguars off the board. In the fourth, however, South Alabama got four straight hits and all four scored to give USA a 4-2 lead. Nine hits for the Jags in the first four innings.
They would only get three hits the rest of the way.
South Alabama tried a safety squeeze bunt in the 6th, but Geith threw to the plate for the out. And in the bottom of the sixth, Sinclair tripled with one out and scored on Bourque’s grounder to make it 4-2. In the seventh, Fuselier singled, Fontenot sacrificed and the Cajuns scored on a single by Porrier to cut the lead to 4-3.
In the USA eighth, Fontenot made another spectacular play with oue out to rob Patterson of a hit.
In the Cajuns eighth, Bourque walked and Brian Bowman ran for him. It was the first walk allowed by a pitcher for either team. Bowman stole second and Goulas sacrificed him to third. Robichaux pinch hit Ryan Leonards for Switzenberg. Reliever Cory McInnis threw ball one.
Now, I don’t know if everyone in the park knew what was coming next, but I did. The Cajuns love to squeeze if the count is 1-0. But my guess was that USA may have known that as well and I was concerned about a possible pitchout. When McInnis came out of his stretch, Bowman took off from third. No pitchout. Leonards got the bunt down and Bowman scored to give the Cajuns the lead.
In the ninth, Taylor White singled with one out. But Earley grounded to Porrier who started the Cajuns’ fourth double play in the last two games and Geith had the complete game victory.
In the Robichaux era, the Cajuns and Jaguars have met 63 times. South Alabama has won 33, the Cajuns 30. (Not bad considering that Robe started 0-8 against the Jaguars. Fifteen games were decided by one run. And, I can’t tell you how many times the winning team came from behind to win.
It’s what a rivalry is supposed to be. And, over the weekend, the Cajuns and Jaguars played the game the way it’s supposed to be played.