Jay’s Memorable Moment #8 – The Breakthrough
USL 13, Texas 6
USL 5, Houston 3
USL 19, Houston 8
Cougar Field, Houston, TX
May 28-30, 1999
Getting to NCAA Regionals hadn’t been a huge problem for the USL Ragin’ Cajuns in the decade leading up to 1999. The problem was winning after getting there.
Going into 1999, the Cajuns had been to regionals five times in the 90′s. They were 3-10 in those regionals, with the only wins coming in 1991, when the Cajuns came out of the loser’s bracket to advance to the regional final in Baton Rouge, where they lost to LSU.
In fact, the Cajuns had NEVER won a first round game in an NCAA regional.
Under Tony Robichaux, the Cajuns were making their third straight appearance in a regional. But in 1997 and 1998 the Cajuns were two and barbecue, losing to Washington and Georgia Tech in 1997 in Starkville, MS., and losing to Tulane and LSU in 1998 in Baton Rouge.
The Cajuns finished second in the Sun Belt Conference during the 1999 regular season and finished 36-20. They then went 2-2 in the Sun Belt Tournament, played at Zephyr Field in Metairie. Although that put the Cajuns at 38-22 on the season, fourth place Florida International won the conference tournament, and Robichaux was concerned FIU and South Alabama might be the only teams selected and the Cajuns might get left out.
He needn’t have worried.
The Cajuns played 14 games against ranked teams during the season and that tough schedule was noticed by the selection committee, who not only put the Cajuns in as one of the 35 at large teams, but also had them as a #2 seed in Houston. #3 Texas, under third year head coach Augie Garrido and #4 Southwest Texas State rounded out the field.
The 1999 Cajuns were a deep team. Fourteen different players had at least 80 at bats during the season. No Cajun played in every game. The depth was necessary as the Cajuns battled injuries during the season. Most significant was an injury to junior third baseman Nathan Nelson, who missed 22 games with a broken thumb and then badly strained a hamstring during the conference tournament. When healthy, Nelson provided tremendous leadership and a hot bat, batting .419 in 136 at-bats.
And, the Cajuns had one of their all time best pitchers ready to go in game one. Phil Devey, the Canadian who became USL’s all time strikeout leader, was a unanimous All-Conference selection, notching a 9-1 record with a 2.81 ERA. Devey set a school record with 152 strikeouts in 118.1 innings coming into the tournament. And, he had his best career performance in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament, pitching a three hit shutout with an SBC record 17 strikeouts.
Devey struck out nine in 6.2 innings, allowing four earned runs. The Cajuns offense riddled three Longhorns pitchers for 17 hits, seven of them for extra bases as USL pounded Texas 13-6. Steven Feehan, Nelson, Ian Calais and Danny Massiatte had three hits each in the contest, with Nelson and Will Hawkins hitting home runs. Alan Ochsner, a senior transfer from Houston Baptist, pitched the final 3.1 innings for his fifth save.
For the first time in school history, the Cajuns were in the winner’s bracket in the NCAA tournament.
But next up was Houston, which featured a potent lineup with plenty of power and a solid number one starter in Shane Nance. The Cajuns countered with right hander Eric Templet. Scheduled for 3pm, the game didn’t start until almost 7pm because of a three hour, fifty minute rain delay in game one between Texas and SW Texas St.
In the bottom of the second inning, Houston scored twice to take a 2-0 lead. And, in the third inning, Templet walked the first batter and hit the second. A walk loaded the bases and Robichaux went to his bullpen.
There was no question the deep bullpen was a Cajuns strength. They relied mostly on the 1-2 punch of Ochsner and Brannon Baranowski. But down the stretch, another Canadian, freshman Gordon O’Brien began to emerge as a weapon. O’Brien had pitched only 20 innings , but most of them came late in the season. O’Brien had a wicked curveball and when he got ahead in the count, he was nearly unhittable, striking out 32 in his 20 innings of work.
O’Brien was summoned into the game with three on, none out and the Cajuns already down 2-0. He got a fly ball and a strikeout for the first two outs, but committed a balk allowing an inherited runner to score and the Cajuns trailed 3-0.
But the Cajuns got back into the game in the fourth as Nelson and George O’Dwyer singled. A passed ball moved the runners up and designated hitter Castulo Valdez delivered Nelson with a sacrifice fly. Jeff Robinson followed with a two out single and the Houston lead was cut to 3-2.
O’Brien pitched into the fifth, but ran into trouble in the fifth inning with a leadoff triple and a one out walk. After O’Brien got the second out, Robichaux called on Baranowski, who got out of the inning with a strikeout.
Robichaux had an issue all day with home plate umpire Don Gilmore’s strike zone, believing his pitchers were getting squeezed. And, his frustration boiled over in the sixth inning. Gilmore took a couple of steps toward the Cajuns dugout. Robichaux went out to meet him and got ejected in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The Cajuns responded.
Valdez walked to lead off the seventh. Robinson singled pinch runner Neil Simoneaux to third. Ian Calais singled home Simoneaux, and Robinson scored on a Massiatte groundout to give the Cajuns their first lead of the day, 4-3.
Baranowski breezed through the seventh and eighth innings. The Cajuns added a huge insurance run in the ninth when, with two out and Robinson on third, Steven Feehan surprised the Cougars defense with a perfect bunt down the third base line to score Robinson and give the Cajuns a 5-3 lead.
But the Cougars wouldn’t go quietly. Pinch-hitter Keith Whatley opened the ninth with a single, bringing up the top of the order. Brandon Caraway walked and the Cougars had the tying runs on with nobody out. Assistant coach Wade Simoneaux, calling the shots with Robe in the clubhouse, elected to bring in Ochsner, even though the right-hander had pitched 3.1 innings the day before.
There was plenty of tension on the field, in the dugouts and in my broadcast booth. Along with my broadcast partner Kyle Seibold, my wife was in our booth. So was Mary Beth McDonald, wife of SID Dan. And, Sun Belt Associate Commissioner Tom Burnett (now the Commissioner of the Southland Conference) was in the booth as well. Yeah, the booth was big enough.
Ochsner finished his warmup tosses and faced Eric Lee, who moved the tying runs into scoring position with a bunt. Now the #3 and #3 hitters, who combined for 32 home runs during the season, were due up. Catcher Jarrod Bitter, a right handed batter was next. First base was open, but there’s an unwritten rule in baseball that you don’t intentionally put the winning run on base. Still, those were two really good hitters coming up. I predicted Simoneaux would elect to have Ochsner pitch to the right handed hitting Mr. Bitter (sorry, couldn’t resist) and if he got him out, he would walk the next hitter, a left handed batter.
Ochsner, a sidearm right hander who would even drop down underneath, was especially tough against right handed hitters. He struck out Bitter on four pitches, bringing up the cleanup hitter, T. J. Woodward.
Simoneaux elected to defy the baseball gods and walk Woodward to load the bases, putting the winning run at first base. But Simoneaux was playing percentages. He was trading a left handed batter for a righty. He was setting up a force at any base. And, he was trading a batter that had hit 17 home runs for one was 0-4 with three strikeouts.
A base hit ties it. One in the gap or over the wall and everyone in the broadcast booth would throw up.
Houston coach Raynor Noble must not have had a left handed hitter he trusted on the bench because he elected to let Tyson Schweitzer bat. Ochsner worked the count to 2-2. The next pitch was a letter-high fastball.
Swing and a miss.
The Cajuns dugout exploded. I heard Tom Burnett scream “YEAH!” behind me as he hugged the ladies. Seibold stood up and pumped his fist. The Cajuns had moved into unchartered territory: the only undefeated team in the Houston regional.
Now the Cougars were at a big disadvantage. Because of the long rain delay in game one, Houston had to turn around and face Texas in a game that wouldn’t begin until almost 11pm. The winner of that game would have to come back and beat the Cajuns twice. We didn’t hang around to watch the Cougars send the Longhorns packing.
Because of the late start, the championship game was moved back to 2:25pm.
Sophomore Scott Dohmann would get the start for the Cajuns. Houston, the visiting team, got a two run homer from Woodward in the first inning (that’s why they walked him the night before) and Houston led 2-0. The Cajuns got a run back on George O’Dwyer’s RBI single. Houston went in order in the second. The Cajuns first two batters made an out in the second inning, but Danny Massiatte doubled to put a runner in scoring position.
Then the rains came. And came. And came. So did the lightning. For four hours and 37 minutes. The Cajuns, as the home team, went into Houston’s clubhouse to relax, stay dry and watch TV. Houston didn’t have that luxury.
When play resumed, Raynor Noble elected to change pitchers and brought in Robert Dieudonne’. Steven Feehan reached on an error, Ryan Gill doubled home Massiatte and Feehan also scored on an errant throw. Nelson delivered Gill with a base hit and the Cajuns would never trail again.
Amazingly, Dohmann came out to pitch in the third inning. And promptly struck out the side.
Houston got a run in the fourth to cut the Cajuns’ lead to 4-3. In the bottom of the inning, Massiatte flew out and, just as Feehan stepped into the box, lightning was detected and the teams waited through another 57 minute delay.
When play resumed, Noble elected not to change pitchers. Four straight Cajuns reached base and the Cajuns led 7-3. Dohmann pitched the fifth and got the side in order. He left in the sixth, as Ochsner came in to get two outs. First baseman/pitcher Jeff Robinson finished up the last three innings.
Houston wound up using seven pitchers in the game. Will Hawkins was 5-5, Gill had four hits, and Nelson and Robinson both homered to lead a 22 hit attack and the Cajuns won it going away 19-8.
The game started at 2:25. It ended at 10:57. It was a long ride home but a happy one. The Cajuns had won their first regional in school history.
The difference between the two teams? Danny Massiatte summed it up after game two.
“This game is all about timely hitting. They didn’t have any.”
The Cajuns had plenty. 49 hits and 37 runs in three games.
It was a breakthrough weekend for Cajuns baseball.
(Information from UL Media Relations and NCAA Box Scores contributed to this story.)