Fiery Ragin' Cajuns catcher Toro hot with his arm, bat
He didn’t recruit him to UL, didn’t sign him.
Before becoming head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns last summer, in fact, Matt Deggs didn’t really know much at all about catcher Sebastian Toro.
But Toro is Deggs’ kind of player, and after watching what he’s done lately, it’s easy to understand why.
“The kid just is a ball of energy. He’s so much fun to be around,” Deggs said. “His teammates love him. He loves to work. He loves to laugh.
“He’s got a little flare to him, and I’m drawn to that. I like guys that play with passion and flare, and play with confidence, and they want to drive the train and be the spark.
“He’s got a lot of those qualities,” Deggs added, “and he’s a great receiver, and he can really throw.”
Can he ever.
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Twice last weekend, actually, the redshirt junior from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, ended games — a pair of victories over Sam Houston State, the team Deggs coached from 2015-19 — with his arm.
And he did it after things didn’t exactly go his, or the Cajuns’, way on the first night of their three-game series with the Southland Conference’s Bearkats.
On Friday, SHSU beat UL 5-4 in 11 innings.
In the top of the 11th the Cajuns intentionally walked Sam Houston’s top two hitters, Jack Rogers and Colton Cowser, to load the bases before the Bearkats scored what proved to be the winning run when a wild pitch in the dirt from Connor Cooke got past Toro, who couldn’t make the block.
Related:UL plan unravels in 11-inning loss to Sam Houston
But rather than keep him down, or make him gun-shy, Toro dusted himself off and bounced right back during the ninth inning of a 1-0 win the next day, one in which he singled and later scored UL's lone run.
First, with Cowser at the plate and the Cajuns clinging to their one-run lead, he popped up from behind the plate to pick off Anthony MacKenzie at first base for the second out of the inning, daring to make the same play he tried but failed in a game earlier in the season.
Then, with Rogers up after Cowser had walked, he gunned down Cowser at second to end it — the first time in his career the U.S. Collegiate National Team member had been thrown out trying to steal.
Deggs called it a “game-saving” play, one that polished off pitcher Brandon Young’s three-hit, complete-game gem. Toro simply called it “special.”
A day later, with the series still undecided, Toro again threw out Cowser trying to steal second in the ninth, this time to preserve a 7-5 Cajuns victory and a 2-1 UL series win.
No wonder teammates love him.
“Toro’s amazing behind the plate,” UL senior outfielder Gavin Bourgeois said. “He has great energy, and he’s really fun to watch.”
Oh, and he’s hitting a team-high .300 too heading into games Friday afternoon against Samford, Saturday afternoon against Michigan State and Sunday afternoon against Troy at Blue Wahoos Stadium in Pensacola, Florida.
Related:Toro keeps Sam Houston from stealing a thriller with UL
More:UL baseball defeats Sam Houston State 7-5
'A NEW SEASON'
Toro is a product of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, a renowned program located not far from San Juan that has produced major-leaguers including Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez.
From there it was on to Seminole State College in Oklahoma, where Toro spent two seasons.
And last season, his first at UL, he got off to a strong start as a Cajun.
Toro was hitting .308 with six RBIs, and — sharing time behind the plate with then-senior Handsome Monica — had started seven of the 11 games in which he played.
More:Cajuns catcher Monica not ready to rest his case just yet
What's in a name? Monica wasn't born Handsome
In one early season outing against Maryland, he was 2-for-3 with two RBIs. In another against Loyola Marymount, he had two hits and scored a run.
But then his arm went sore.
Initially, late Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux — who passed away last July, leading to the hiring of ex-UL assistant Deggs — thought he’d get Toro back before season’s end.
In time, though, it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen. Toro wound up taking a medical redshirt instead.
It pained him to do so.
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“It was frustrating,” said Toro, who has had to overcome injury before.
“My sophomore year (at Seminole) I broke my hand. But we were in the playoffs, so I didn’t miss a lot of games. But last year it kind of hurt myself. I wasn’t ready to play. My arm wasn’t ready.
“It kind of got me hard — not playing, losing … games,” Toro added. “Last year, I didn’t do nothing to help my team win.”
But that was 2019.
This is 2020, so Toro erased all memory of a year lost.
“It’s a new season,” he said. “You can’t worry about what happened the last season.”
But Toro didn’t just think that.
The fiery, wide-smiling, charismatic Puerto Rican lived it, and teammates could tell.
“He really didn’t complain at all when he had the injury, which is something pretty special,” senior pitcher Young said. “You know, a lot of guys kind of mope, kind of get down.
“But … he had his energy all the time, and it’s been paying off for him.”
Has it ever.
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Related:Stacked UL pitching staff looks the part going into 2020
A NEW ARM
In 10 games played, nine of them starts, Toro already has thrown out 10 of 16 runners trying to steal.
“He didn’t have that kind of arm last year,” Young said. “He’s gotten a lot better.
“I’m surprised if he doesn’t get his name called in the (MLB) Draft this year, for sure.”
All this from someone whose arm, still on the mend in the fall, prevented Deggs from fully appreciating him early on.
“Didn’t know a lot about Sebastian coming in, because he was hurt,” the first-season Cajuns coach said.
“He hit a ball off the centerfield wall against us a year ago at Sam, and that was basically my experience with him.”
“I haven’t even heard about it or talked about it,” Deggs, whose Cajuns are coming off Tuesday night's 11-2 win at Rice, said with reference to the arm injury. “He just jumped in with both feet, and he’s gone.”
Related:Seven-run fifth pushes the Ragin' Cajuns past Rice
It’s the new arm, though, that really has Toro going. That, and the bat, which has produced five RBIs and nine hits in 30 at-bats this year.
He didn’t have surgery on the arm, but said he instead underwent “PRP.”
According to multiple medical websites, platelet-rich plasma therapy involves transfusion injections of a concentration of a patient’s own blood platelets to promote and accelerate the healing of damaged tendons, ligaments, muscles and joints.
“I came out with a lot of confidence in myself right now, especially … hitting too,” said Toro, whose first language is Spanish.
“Sometimes if I don’t hit my confidence goes down, but I just try to be the same guy every day.”
During the middle game of a home series with Virginia Tech the weekend before the one with Sam Houston State, Toro struck out four times in row.
For the three-game series, he fanned six times in all and finished 2-for-11 at the plate.
Related:Cajuns strike out 16 times and 15 are stranded in loss to Virginia Tech
Toro knew he had to do something, anything, to shake the feeling.
So, for starters, he did what anyone else in his position would.
“Just show up to the field,” Toro said.
But before that he made a call.
“I talked to my Dad (Anthony),” Toro said.
“I said, ‘Hey, there’s nothing I can do more.’ I just keep showing up, working hard, just try to get hits.”
Reflective of the confidence he has in Toro’s bat, Deggs also did his part.
He had Toro hitting cleanup to open the SHSU series.
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“When I saw that,” Toro said, “I was like, ‘Man … I’m not used to hitting in the four-hole.’
“But I just used it as a challenge. I was gonna get there, get some pitches and try to get ahead and try to get in scoring position.”
Toro went 3-for-5 with a double and one run scored in UL’s first game against Sam Houston, and he finished the series 4-for-8 with just two strikeouts, showing defense isn’t the only reason he’s a cut above.
The Cajuns carry three catchers, and all three have started at least once behind the plate this year.
But Toro’s play of late earned has earned him starts in four straight games and seven of 5-8 UL’s last eight.
It’s also prompted Deggs to find other places to play the Cajuns’ two reserve catchers so he can get their bats into the lineup too, prompting playtime at third base for junior backup Nick Hagedorn while Jonathan Windham deals with a hand injury and opportunity at first base for hot-hitting freshman Julian Brock.
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With the way he plays defensively, not to mention the bat, the Cajuns coach simply wants Toro in the lineup as long as he can hold up.
And why not?
The arm really is a weapon, a deterrent that could easily keep even the speediest of base-runners from trying to steal too much from the Cajuns.
“He makes you extremely uncomfortable on the bases,” Deggs said. “It tightens up leads. Guys don’t want to run as much, and it’s a definitive advantage.”
Toro’s arm eases stress on Cajun pitchers too.
“I don’t have to make perfect pitches with a guy on first or second, at least,” Young said. “If I throw it a little out, (or) my timing can be a little off, and I know he’s got me nine times out of 10 times.”
Deggs understands well just how much that can lead to mind games in the opposite dugout.
“I had Robie Rojas three years ago and he led the nation in caught stealings, and it does (discourage opponents from running),” Deggs said with reference to the ex-Sam Houston catcher who has made it to as high as the AAA level in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
“You get to the point where you don’t even (make pickoff attempts), because you’re enticing people to run.”
Which is precisely what Toro and the Cajuns did to Cowser and the Bearcats over the weekend.
“He’s been that type of difference-maker,” Deggs said.
Has he ever.
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RAGIN’ CAJUNS BASEBALL
WHAT: Round-robin style college baseball tournament
WHERE: Blue Wahoos Stadium; Pensacola, Florida
WHEN: UL (5-8) vs. Samford (10-1), 2 p.m. Friday; UL vs. Michigan State (8-4), 3 p.m. Saturday; UL vs. Troy (8-5), 3 p.m. Sunday (all times central)
RADIO: KPEL 96.5 FM with Jay Walker (play-by-play) and Brad Topham (analysis)
TV: Cox Sports Television (CST) live Friday, CST tape delayed 10 p.m. Saturday, CST live Sunday
CAJUN LEADERS: C Sebastian Toro (.300), OF Gavin Bourgeois (.286), 3B Jonathan Windham (.267), CF Brennan Breaux (.267, six RBI)
UL PITCHING: RHP Conor Angel (1-1, 1.50 ERA) is scheduled to start Friday, RHP Brandon Young (2-0, 1.47 ERA) Saturday and RHP Will Moriarty (0-2, 3.86) Sunday