NSU CORVALLIS, Oregon – The first eight innings of Sunday afternoon’s elimination game in the NCAA Corvallis Regional were quintessential 2018 Northwestern State baseball. The Demons fell behind LSU early before battling back to take the lead on two occasions, including the bottom of the eighth inning, but the Tigers put together a five-run, ninth-inning rally to hand Northwestern State a 9-5 defeat at Goss Stadium. “It’s been a hell of a run,” second-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “I said it before, I dreaded this press conference, because it means I don’t get to coach them anymore. They’ve been a tremendous group.
The love that was formed, people think it’s easy and teams just comes together. That fight you saw the last three or four days, that’s who this team is. It’s going to be tough not being able to coach that team anymore. They fought to the bitter end, and I can’t be more proud of them.” The loss ended a turnaround season for the Demons (38-24), who set a school record by winning 18 more games than they did a season ago, going from 14 games under .500 to 14 games over the breakeven mark. And with two outs to go, it appeared Northwestern State was going to keep its magical run going from the preseason No. 11 pick in the Southland Conference to conference tournament champions to regional finalists. LSU (39-26) had different plans.
After issuing a leadoff walk to Antoine Duplantis, Jose Vasquez (6-2) retired Daniel Cabrera on a long fly ball to right-center field. Austin Bain then began a run of three straight hits, capped by Jake Slaughter’s go-ahead RBI single. Hal Hughes’ two-run double capped the five-run inning that swung the momentum away from Northwestern State for the final time. “Jose has been our guy,” Barbier said. “That’s the same guy who came in the conference championship game and threw the last four innings. They took good swings. Every time we made a mistake, they made us pay for it.” The Demons did their fair share of making the Tigers pay. LSU took a 1-0 lead on the game’s first pitch when Zach Watson homered off Demons right-hander Nathan Jones. After a long first inning, Jones worked in and out of trouble minimizing the damage while ducking around traffic on the bases. Down 2-0 in the fourth inning, Sam Taylor turned on a 3-1 fastball from Cam Sanders and drilled his second home run of the regional to left field, tying the game.
“The long ball isn’t really my game,” said Taylor, who entered the regional without a home run. “I’ve been putting good swings on some balls lately. It was a great experience to come up here and a memory I’ll have forever.” With Jones (6-puls innings, four runs) settling in, Lenni Kunert continued his torrid postseason by launching a tie-breaking leadoff homer in the sixth inning, part of a 3-for-4 day for the NSU left fielder. In his final four postseason games, Kunert went 10-for-16 with two home runs and a trio of three-hit games. Senior Kwan Adkins, in his final game as a Demon, added an RBI infield single to give NSU a 4-2 lead after six innings.
“They’re always a great team, year in and year out,” Kunert said of LSU. “We attacked. We weren’t scared. They know we were here to play.” The Tigers nicked Jones for two runs with nobody out in the seventh before Vasquez entered and kept the game tied, setting the stage for more Demons’ heroics. Facing Matthew Beck (4-1), Peyton Davis led off the eighth inning with Northwestern State’s second tie-breaking, leadoff home run in three innings, sending a drive over the double wall that runs in left field at Goss Stadium. “I was just trying to get something elevated,” Davis said. “They’d been beating me all day with the fastball in. I moved a few steps off the plate, looking for something over the middle. I got it up in the jet stream and luckily got it over the fence.” Davis’ blast looked like it would advance the Demons to the first regional final in program history before the Tigers’ final rally. Instead, it was the last highlight in a special season that saw the Demons post the largest single-season improvement in program history (18 wins), capture their first Southland Conference Tournament championship and toss the first NCAA Regional shutout in school history.
“The grit and the fight and how this run brought so many people together,” Barbier said when asked about what he would take from this season. “I haven’t really had time to take it all in, but I think they’ll go down as a pretty special group.”