The Northwestern State baseball team nearly pulled off its second improbable comeback of the Southland Conference baseball season Friday night.
However, the Demons were unable to land the final blow in the opener of a three-game series at Stephen F. Austin, falling to the Lumberjacks, 4-2, at Jaycees Field.
“(SFA starter Alex Palmer) has really good numbers,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “In the middle innings, he got a little out of control. He lost command a little bit. We had chances, and we couldn’t get the hit. There’s a reason he’s good and doesn’t give up a lot of hits per nine innings.”
Trailing 4-0 entering the ninth inning, Austin Stegall jump-started the Demons’ comeback bid, slamming his fifth home run of the season off reliever Jesus Gamez.
Gamez then walked Lenni Kunert and, after striking out the next two Demons, walked Sam Taylor and gave up a two-out RBI single to Caleb Ricca.
After Gamez threw a first-pitch ball to Jeffrey Elkins, Austin Roth replaced him and walked Elkins to load the bases, bringing up shades of the Demons’ March 31 ninth-inning rally at Houston Baptist in which Northwestern State (24-17, 12-10) scored four runs after having two outs and the bases empty in the top of the ninth inning.
Unlike that day, Friday did not work out for Northwestern State as Roth got a strikeout to end the game and earn his first save for the Lumberjacks (19-23, 12-7).
While the Demons capitalized on a handful of ninth-inning opportunities, that was not the case for the first eight innings.
NSU stranded eight runners against Palmer (4-5) and relievers Jeremy Rodriguez and Tyler Starks before the ninth inning.
The Demons pushed Palmer’s pitch count to 110 after six innings, but Northwestern State stranded the bases loaded against the Stephen F. Austin starter in the sixth. Palmer’s effective wildness — he walked five – was offset by his limiting the Demons to three singles in his six innings.
“When a guy’s good against you, you’ve got to do other things right,” Barbier said. “We didn’t do that. We misplayed a couple of bunts. We misplayed a ball in center. We struck out too much. We didn’t make them play with the ball. It was one of those Friday nights where we didn’t play as well as we could have, and we paid for it.”
The Lumberjacks were barely better at converting against Demons left-hander Ridge Heisler (3-4), who scattered nine hits in seven innings, allowing two runs while striking out four and not issuing a walk.
Heisler worked in and out of traffic for the first three innings before settling in, but a two-run second inning put Stephen F. Austin ahead to stay.
Heisler hit Josh Campbell to lead off the inning and Jarrod Huber followed with a double. After Heisler induced a groundout to first by Antonio Lima, the Lumberjacks went to their short game with favorable results.
Carson Clowers’ bunt single scored the first run and Nick Daley followed with another bunt that got past Heisler on the first base side of the mound. Second baseman Hilton Brown charged the ball, and he and Clowers made contact in the baseline. Huber to score the second run of the inning.
Heisler limited the damage with a strikeout of Brandon Uhse and a popout by Manny Vasquez before handcuffing the Lumberjacks for the final four innings of his start.
“As the game gets on, he gets better,” Barbier said. “You can count on him on Friday night. That’s one of the reasons he’s out there. He normally gets us to the seventh or eighth every Friday.”
The deficit remained at two before Stephen F. Austin scored a pair of unearned runs in the eight without the benefit of a hit. A leadoff two-base error started the two-run inning against Austin Reich and David Hodo.
Those runs loomed even larger as the Demons put together a furious ninth-inning rally that fell just short.
“Keeping pressure on the other team – whether it’s by moving the ball or pounding the strike zone and not letting them extend the lead,” Barbier said. “That all helps you win ball games in the end.”
The series continues Saturday with a 12:30 p.m. first pitch. Senior right-hander Nathan Jones (5-2, 2.50) takes the mound for the Demons against Stephen F. Austin left-hander Jacob Stobart (6-1, 5.61).
Stephen F. Austin 4, Northwestern State 2
NSU 000 000 002 – 2 6 2
SFA 020 000 02x – 4 9 0
W – Alex Palmer (4-5). L – Ridge Heisler (3-4). S – Austin Roth (1). 2B – SFA, Brandon Uhse, Jarrod Huber. HR – NSU, Austin Stegall (5). Highlights: NSU, Caleb Ricca 2-5, RBI. SFA, Nick Daley 2-5, RBI; Brandon Uhse 2-4; Carson Clowers 2-4, 2 RBIs.
Records: Northwestern State 24-17, 12-10; Stephen F. Austin 19-23, 12-7