Demons cap SLC road slate with trip to McNeese

LAKE CHARLES – The calendar says early May, but there is some finality on the horizon for the Northwestern State baseball team this weekend.

Beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, the Demons open their final road series of the 2022 season, making the quick trip south to face McNeese in a three-game Southland Conference set.

The series also features a 6 p.m. Saturday start and a 1 p.m. Sunday series finale. Free streaming audio of all three games will be available on and through the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for both Apple and Android devices.

“It feels like it’s flown by,” sixth-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “It’s a good one to go to. McNeese is a good team, obviously. They’re one of the teams that are tied for first. They’re playing really well. They’ve won nine of their last 10 (conference) games.”

Northwestern State (21-23, 9-9) has alternated series losses and wins the past three weekends, leaving it in a three-way tie for second place two games behind McNeese (26-19, 11-7), Nicholls and Houston Baptist with six conference games remaining.

The Demons’ final road weekend trip of the season will match strength on strength – Northwestern State’s starting pitching against McNeese’s offense.

Entering this weekend, the Demons’ three starters all rank in the top seven in the Southland Conference in ERA while three of the league’s top hitters in average are in the Cowboys’ lineup, including Brad Burckel, whose .362 mark paces the league.

For the 12th straight weekend, the Demons will start left-hander Cal Carver (3-4, 4.10) and right-handers Johnathan Harmon (5-5, 2.93) and Drayton Brown (5-4, 3.38) in that order. McNeese will counter with right-handers Grant Rogers (5-3, 3.59) and Chance Stone (3-2, 3.83) on Friday and Saturday. The Cowboys have not announced a starter for Sunday’s finale.

“We’ve had good starts all year long,” Barbier said. “I look forward to seeing that trend continue and to see some of the relievers who pitched so well (Wednesday) and in the last mid-week catch some fire at the back end of the season and help us win some games down the stretch.”

Northwestern State utilized five pitchers who typically are relievers to hold Louisiana Tech to seven hits and just two earned runs – none after the first inning.

The quintet of right-handers Ethan Francis, Donovan Ohnoutka, Chase Prestwich and Andrew Cossio and left-hander Cameron Taylor struck out eight and walked two.

That performance came after the Demon bullpen posted four scoreless frames to end games at Grambling (April 26) and at Louisiana Tech (April 20).

With the Demon starting trio’s innings on the rise – Harmon (70 2-3) and Brown (61 1-3) have established career highs in that category – the emergence of additional contributors from the bullpen is a welcome thought for Barbier.

“We’re getting close to the conference tournament, so we want to keep those guys at a lower pitch count,” Barbier said. “Those guys have given us everything, especially for the past three or four weeks. They’ve been close to 100 pitches every time. We want to give them a break and keep them strong given how the conference race goes.”

The Demon offense has ridden a season-long roller coaster that may get a boost this weekend.

Joe Miller Ballpark has a reputation as a hitter-friendly stadium, which would be a welcome sight for an NSU team that has seen its share of weather-affected moments in its first 44 games.

“More than any other year, the wind has affected games both ways,” Barbier said. “It’s probably been more along the lines of blowing in at the different places we’ve been. I think it lends some excitement to your offense when you go to a smaller yard with the wind blowing out. You can get some confidence when you see the ball go pretty far in BP. It will be a different experience, but it’s one I’m sure we’ll be up for.”

Series Probables
Friday: Northwestern State LHP Cal Carver (3-4, 4.10) at McNeese RHP Grant Rogers
Saturday: Northwestern State RHP Johnathan Harmon (5-5, 2.93) at McNeese RHP Chance Stone
Sunday: Northwestern State RHP Drayton Brown (5-4, 3.38) at McNeese TBA

Photo: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services