They’re Still the Jaguars – From the Bird’s Nest
Last year, South Alabama came to Lafayette for the final time with Steve Kittrell as head coach. And, I knew I was going to miss him.
Very soft spoken off the field and a man who never used profanity, Kittrell was a different sort on the field. He was a fighter. And, his teams fought. (Sometimes literally). Kittrell was a motivator. He would charge umpires, many of them six or more inches taller.
Over the years I learned to really like and respect Steve Kittrell and I'll always appreciate the conversations we had when the Jags and Cajuns would get together each year.
But I never wanted to win more than I wanted to beat South Alabama.
Also last year, I visited with Charlie Nichols, the baseball Sports Information Director at South Alabama. I told him about some of the series in the past and he said there was someone downstairs who played back then. I remembered Joey Charon well. He played at South Alabama in the late '90s. A second baseman with plenty of power, Charon hit double digit home runs. And, like Kittrell, he was a fighter.
Charlie and I went downstairs and he introduced me to Charon. "It's great to meet you," I said. "I hated you when you were a player." He laughed. "That's OK," he said, "I hated USL." We talked a lot about the rivalry between the two clubs and agreed that to today's players, the series doesn't mean what it used to.
"These guys always talk about Troy," Charon told me. "But I keep telling them in baseball, your rival is in Lafayette."
That just underscored what I believed. In fact, back in 2009, South Alabama came to Lafayette and swept the Cajuns. After the Saturday game, I asked assistant coach Anthony Babineaux, "Don't these guys understand who we're playing." His response was "No. They really don't."
And, although the coaching staffs from both teams tell the stories about the past, the truth is the luster has gone off this rivalry a little. And, the reason is it's been five years since the two teams were near the top of the league at the same time.
The Cajuns and Jaguars finished one-two in the Sun Belt in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2005. In 2006, they finished second and third behind league champion Troy. Since then, not only have they not fought together for a championship, it's hasn't been close. Since 2006, the last time they were in a regional, South Alabama hasn't finished higher than fifth. The Cajuns have won two championships and finished ahead of the Jags in the Sun Belt every year since 2004.
This year the Jaguars have been an enigma. Prior to conference play, South Alabama's offense was simply pitiful. They were hitting .231 as a team and were averaging about 4.5 runs per game. They had hit exactly TWO home runs as a team. They were last or next to last in most offensive statistics in the Sun Belt. They had given up 23 unearned runs in 16 games. They were 4-12 and the only thing respectable about their club, statistically speaking, was their team ERA, which, at 4.53, not bad considering their schedule.
Then conference play started and things got a little crazy.
In Sun Belt play, the Jaguars lead the league with a .360 average, nearly 100 points higher than their overall average. They've scored 36 more runs than anyone else in the league and average eight and a half runs per game in the SBC. They've hit 24 home runs since league play started. Their defense is fielding nearly .980 in conference play. That's really good. In fact, they've only given up eight unearned runs in fifteen league games.
But now, their pitching has gone, pardon the pun, south.
Suddenly the Jaguars can't get anyone out. Their team ERA is dead last in the league at 8.36. They've given up as many runs as they've scored and have given up a full run per game more than the next worst team. Anthony Izzio, who had a 1.32 ERA before league play began, is 5.40 in conference games and he's the best starter they have.
In fact, outside of Kyle Bartsch and Jamie Dennis in the bullpen, this staff isn't getting anyone out. The three pitchers mentioned are the only ones that have ERA's under six.
I can't figure this bunch out.
I'll bet new head coach Mark Calvi can't either.
Lefty Phillip Byrd (2-2, 6.93 in SBC play) is one of only four holdovers from last year's staff. He gets the start Friday against Jordan Nicholson. We know the Cajuns have struggled to hit lefthanders this season, although they did get eight hits the last time they faced one, last Sunday against FIU. On Saturday, righthander Payton Gardner (0-2, 5.96 in the SBC) gets his first conference start on Saturday in place of Izzio. He'll be opposed by lefty Chris Griffitt. And, on Sunday, righthander Jared Cito (4-3, 6.24 in the SBC) matches up with lefty Jordan Harrison.
If the Cajuns are going to have success this weekend, they'll need to swing the bats. Only Middle Tennessee has held the Jaguars under five runs in a conference game (they did it twice.) The Jaguars have had double digit hits in twelve of sixteen games.
I have no idea what's going to happen this weekend. I don't know if the Cajuns' offense can score a lot of runs, even against a pitching staff that's really struggling. I don't know if the pitching staff, one of the best in the league, can hold down a Jaguars' team that is pounding the baseball.
But I know I haven't forgotten the past.
I know we're in Mobile.
And it's South Alabama.