Three Strikes: Cajuns Lead Sun Belt, Northeastern’s Case

Image credit: Louisiana DH Ben Fitzgerald (Photo courtesy of UL)

Coming off of a series win against Arkansas State at home, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, at 7-2 in conference play and 20-12 overall, have emerged as the favorite in the Sun Belt Conference.

Being a team that brought in a lot of newcomers over the last couple of years as part of the rebuild led by coach Matt Deggs and his staff, there was plenty of intrigue about the Cajuns coming into the season, but few would have pegged them to be in this position at just past the halfway mark of the campaign. 

Some of that is because there were a number of other teams that provided a higher level of certainty on paper. Coastal Carolina, as the established power, seems to come into every season as the default favorite in the league. This season, Texas State was a trendy pick based on bringing back an experienced team that enjoyed a lot of success together in 2019 and 2020. The same could be said to varying degrees about Texas-Arlington and Louisiana-Monroe, and South Alabama was something of a wild card with the best player in the conference in Ethan Wilson

Instead, in the driver’s seat are the Cajuns, and there are a couple of clear reasons for that. 

All season long, they’ve been able to lean on their pitching staff, which sports a 3.71 team ERA coming out of the weekend, good for tops in the Sun Belt. Specifically, righthanders Spencer Arrighetti (6-1, 1.37 ERA) and Connor Cooke (4-2, 1.89 ERA) have been about as good as it gets. 

Arrighetti, who came to Lafayette from Navarro (Texas) JC but began his career at Texas Christian, has emerged as a true Friday starter for the Cajuns. The only outing in which he has given up more than one run was his start last weekend against Arkansas State, and he was still solid in giving up three runs in six innings. 

Cooke, who has been in the program since the 2019 season, has been a jack-of-all-trades for the team, but the days of being used in a variety of roles might be coming to an end. He started last Saturday and threw a complete game two-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts, which bodes well for him being penciled in on Saturdays moving forward. 

“It’s looking pretty good,” Deggs said of Cooke’s push for the Saturday spot. “I mean, it’s hard to top what he just did, so he’s going to take that ball and run with it. He’s so versatile, I wish we had two or three of him, but you’ve got one, so you’ve got to use him in the best spot to help the ball club win, and right now I think that’s on Saturday.”

As is always the case with Deggs’ teams, versatility is a valued commodity, and you can see that on the pitching staff. Nine different pitchers have started at least one game, and none of those nine have exclusively started. Even Arrighetti has one relief appearance this season. 

The same is true of the lineup. The only player to play in and start in all 32 games is center fielder Tyler Robertson (.292/.333/.467). Just four other players—Ben Fitzgerald (.350/.455/.748, 9 HR), Carson Roccaforte (.306/.378/.468), Connor Kimple (.292/.394/.496) and Bobby Lada (.273/.360/.434)—have started at least 28 games. All told, 18 different players have appeared as position players and all of them have at least three starting assignments and a dozen at-bats. 

And the offensive unit appears to be getting better as the season goes on. A team that is hitting .263/.355/.427 overall has a .309/.403/.533 slash line in conference play. While some of that can be attributed to having faced talented teams like TCU and Southern Mississippi in nonconference play, that’s not the only explanation. 

“I felt like, for a little bit, we got away from our approach, and would kind of go up there without an approach and we were striking out a lot,” Robertson said after his team’s sweep of ULM two weekends ago. “In these past two weeks in Sun Belt play, we’ve stuck to that approach with seeing our pitch, getting that pitch, or just two-strike hitting, striking out less and walking more.”

To hear the players tell it, the hot start to conference play also has a lot to do with the quickly-improving team chemistry, and that aspect of this team was no sure thing given the fact that this roster is loaded with relative newcomers from the last two recruiting classes, many of them junior college or Division I transfers. 

“Over the past couple of weeks, we were already close, but I feel like we’ve gotten closer with everybody traveling,” Robertson said. “So I feel like we’ve gotten closer and better team chemistry and everybody knows their role on the team. Once everybody knows their role, and no one’s selfish, I feel like the team gets to that next level, and I feel like we’re getting there right now.”

Furthermore, this specific roster makeup, which is heavy on junior college transfers, might also add fuel to the team’s fire. Junior college players often feel like they have something to prove, helping them put their best foot forward. 

“I think we’ve all been through the juco thing together, for the most part” Kimple said. “It’s different schools, but it’s kind of the same deal. Not a lot is given to you, you’ve got to work for everything you have.”

Not to take anything away from what the Ragin’ Cajuns have done, but it has to be said that they also find themselves as the current favorite in the conference because so many of the preseason favorites have underwhelmed thus far. 

Coastal Carolina is 2-4 in Sun Belt play, with series losses to the Cajuns and Texas-Arlington and wasn’t helped by a Covid-19 pause in the schedule. Texas State is 5-7 in the league and under .500 overall. ULM is just 3-9 in conference. South Alabama, which hosts the Cajuns this weekend, came into last weekend 5-1, but was promptly swept by Arkansas-Little Rock, a team that was swept the weekend prior by Arkansas State. 

It’s early, but it already seems apt to draw comparisons to the last program Deggs led, Sam Houston State. The most successful teams there under Deggs played with an edge, used the entire roster and were hyper-disciplined about focusing on approach rather than fixating on results. That’s working for UL right now, and it certainly doesn’t have to apologize for being where it is, no matter how it arrived there. 

There is still a sizable gulf between what the Cajuns have accomplished this season and the heights the Bearkats reached under Deggs, but the similarities are there and that should be taken as good news for what to expect next. 

Northeastern Poised to Provide Intriguing Postseason Case

There are a couple of things to get out of the way here first. For one, Northeastern canceled its midweek game with Boston College this week due to Covid-19 protocols in the program, and it’s not clear how long that will end up sidelining the team. 

Also, for our discussion today, which will get into postseason resume talk, it should be stated that Northeastern looks the part of a regional team on the field, even before you look at numbers.

It has a 3.31 team ERA with a staff that features a rotation of veteran workhorse Kyle Murphy (2-0, 4.45) and underclassmen prospects in righthanders Cam Schlitter (2-0, 2.10) and Sebastian Keane (2-1, 4.91), all of whom strike out more than a batter per inning, and a deep bullpen. 

The lineup features athleticism and hittability throughout, led by outfielder Jeff Costello (.351/.464/.439), outfielder Jared Dupere (.316/.391/.684, 7 HR), second baseman Scott Holzwasser (.300/.457/.471, 11 SB) and outfielder Ben Malgeri (.288/.374/.388, 11 SB). 

And that level of talent should enable Northeastern to win enough games to create a very interesting postseason case come Selection Monday. 

So far, things are tracking well for the Huskies. They are 14-6 and 3-0 in Colonial play. They have an RPI of 50 as of Wednesday morning, which would make them a viable, if fringy, at-large candidate if the season ended today and they weren’t the automatic bid winner. 

Road wins over the likes of Wake Forest and Old Dominion will serve them well as the season goes on, and they still have two shots each at wins against Connecticut and Boston College later this season, which would help. 

Dominating conference play would also be a feather in their cap and that’s very much on the table. This season, the CAA split into two divisions, North and South, with no inter-divisional regular season games. As such, the entirety of NU’s conference slate will come against Delaware, Hofstra and Towson, opponents Northeastern will be expected to handle. 

So let’s game this out. The fourth game of last weekend’s Hofstra series was rained out, so Northeastern is currently scheduled to play 23 conference games, and let’s just assume it gets all those games played. 

What if Northeastern goes 20-3 in conference, and combined with its sprinkling of midweek games, finishes the regular season with something like a 37-11 record and an RPI in the mid 40s, with its best wins being single road victories over Wake Forest and Old Dominion as part of series losses? 

If that resume seems light to you, you’re not wrong, but remember 2018. That Northeastern team went 36-21 overall, 17-6 in conference play and finished the regular season with an RPI in the mid 30s, all while going 3-11 against the RPI top 50 with its best wins being single victories over Missouri and Auburn as part of series losses. 

That 2018 resume is probably better than the hypothetical 2021 resume laid out here, and there are a number of differences in the resumes that are too granular for this discussion today, but it’s not light years different. 

It’s also worth noting that the path to a viable at-large resume for Northeastern this season is pretty narrow and really running up the score record-wise is paramount. This is the case chiefly because the North-South alignment of the CAA also provides some downside risk. Any losses, let alone series losses, to Towson and Delaware, both of which are currently above 200 in RPI, would be tough pills to swallow. 

The easiest path to the postseason for Northeastern, of course, is simply winning the conference tournament, and given that it very well might be the best team in the CAA this season, that doesn’t seem like too tall a task for this group. But if they take care of business in the regular season and end up falling short of the auto bid, the Huskies could be poised to provide one of the most polarizing postseason cases this season. 

Fairfield, Monmouth Meet for Top Billing in MAAC

The Metro Atlantic schedule is the most unique there is in college baseball this season, and that’s saying something when you consider how many different scheduling permutations there are in the game in 2021. 

Teams in the conference began a 40-game conference-only slate the weekend of March 20. Each weekend consists of four games played as two doubleheaders, with each doubleheader made up of one seven-inning game and one nine-inning contest. 

Then, in an effort to pack in as many games as possible, and taking advantage of the MAAC’s condensed geographic footprint, additional conference games are slotted in throughout the season as doubleheaders in the middle of the week. 

So far, Fairfield and Monmouth, at 14-0 and 12-2, respectively, have established themselves as the teams to watch in the conference, and those two are slated to play this weekend in what looks to be the series of the year in the MAAC. 

Both are pitching-focused outfits right now. Fairfield has a 2.17 team ERA led by veteran righthanders John Signore (3-0, 0.49) and Jake Noviello (3-0, 0.90), along with lefthander Michael Sansone (3-0, 3.20). 

Monmouth has a 2.58 team ERA and boasts four starting pitchers with ERAs of 2.55 or lower in lefthanders Rob Hensey (2-0, 0.00), Alex Barker (2-0, 1.69) and Trey Dombroski (2-0, 2.12) and righthander Alex Klepchick (2-1, 2.55). 

In the lineup, each team also has a player who has made a compelling early push for conference player of the year honors. For Monmouth, it’s Barker, who is a two-way contributor for the Hawks. In addition to his production on the mound, he’s hitting .357/.538/.939 with four home runs and more walks (10) than strikeouts (nine). 

The Stags counter with shortstop Justin Guerrera, who leads the MAAC in a bunch of offensive categories including batting average (.471), slugging percentage (1.059), home runs (eight), RBIs (23), runs scored (20) and hits (20, in a tie with teammate Mike Handal). Additionally, he’s second in on-base percentage (.550) and stolen bases (six, also in a tie with Handal). He’s also walked (nine) more often than he has struck out (seven). 

Fairfield has been playing well enough that it can simply hold serve here, split the four games, and still be considered the favorite to win the regular-season title. Monmouth, meanwhile, probably needs to push to win this series to change the dynamics of the MAAC race. 

One other storyline of note in the MAAC is the plight of Marist, a team that was expected to be among the contenders in the league, led by arguably the most talented pitcher in the conference, righthander Ryan Cardona

With St. Peter’s getting on the field for the first time last weekend, the Red Foxes are not only the last team in the conference to play games but also the last non-Ivy League team that intends to play in 2021 that has yet to do so. 

The campus-wide pause in activity officially expired on April 12, but it’s still not clear when Marist can expect to get back on the field, and not surprisingly, its Wednesday doubleheader against Siena has been canceled. 

If Marist gets back on the field quickly, there is still a chance for it to get going and make a push into the conference tournament and toward a postseason run, but thanks to this extended pause, it is really behind the eight ball. 

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