LAKE CHARLES – In head coach Bobby Barbier’s seven years at the helm of his alma mater, the Northwestern State baseball team has entered the Southland Conference Tournament coming off a variety of final regular-season weekends.
As the No. 5 seed Demons prepare to face second-seeded UIW at 11 a.m. at McNeese’s Joe Miller Ballpark, the 2023 edition does so coming off one of the toughest weekends it has faced this season. The game will air on ESPN+ with free streaming audio available through www.NSUDemons.com and the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for Apple and Android devices.
“It’s baseball in a nutshell – we get to wake up and play the next day,” said Barbier, who will coach in his fifth SLC tournament. “We had a few bad ones in a row – and bad is relative. We had two leads in the ninth inning and couldn’t close them out. It was a tough weekend, but there’s no better time for the ultimate reset – when the regular season is over and the tournament starts.”
Northwestern State (27-25, 12-12 SLC) dropped all three games at Southeastern this past weekend. However, the Demons produced an 11-7 mark against the six other teams that reached the SLC Tournament, which begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday with a single-elimination, play-in game between sixth-seeded McNeese and No. 7 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
NSU went 2-1 in five series against No. 1 Nicholls, No. 2 UIW, No. 3 Lamar, No. 4 New Orleans and McNeese. The lone series the Demons dropped against a tournament foe was a 1-2 showing at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi from May 5-7.
“We’re coming off a tough weekend,” said second baseman Daunte Stuart, who will play in his third straight conference tournament. “That isn’t the type of team we are, and we’re looking forward to this tournament and being able to show everybody who we are. We know who we are as a team.
“We’re a gritty team, a talented team, a team that’s going to come every day to the ballpark and compete as hard as we can.”
For the third straight tournament and 31st straight series or tournament opener, Northwestern State will turn to left-hander Cal Carver (6-3, 4.64) to start the opener. Carver has pitched into the seventh inning in each of his first two Southland Conference starts – in 2021 at Southeastern and in 2022 against Nicholls in Lake Charles.
Carver’s 45th career start will equal Dennis Choate’s school record that has stood since 1975. A senior from San Antonio, Carver needs four strikeouts to surpass Heath Hennigan’s career strikeout record of 255 that was established in 2010.
In his final two regular-season starts, Carver went 1-0 with a no-decision, turning in two quality starts than included a May 12 win against McNeese in which he outpitched Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year Grant Rogers. Carver delivered a quality start against UIW on April 21 in Natchitoches, working six innings and allowing two earned runs in a no-decision. The Cardinals won that game 11-5 in 10 innings for their lone win of the series.
“We trust Cal,” Barbier said. “He’s going to compete hard and give us a chance to win. He’s pitched great the last couple of starts. He’s really regained the momentum he built earlier in the season. It’s a smaller park, so hopefully we can get some offense and get him some support against a pretty good arm over there at UIW.”
Barbier can trust his team’s offense that finished second in the league in home runs (34) and in runs scored (177) in conference play. The Demons’ .286 average in league play placed them fourth in the league.
First-team All-Southland Conference third baseman Michael Dattalo enters his first conference tournament second in the league in hitting (.389) and tops in the conference with 81 hits – the sixth-highest total in school single-season history and seven shy of tying Ryan Anholt’s school record of 88.
Dattalo is part of an offense that produced two other all-conference performers – second-team shortstop Jake Haze, whose .418 batting average in league play topped the conference, and outfielder Jeffrey Elkins, who tied for third with 12 home runs and ranked fourth in the league with 54 runs scored.
“It definitely helps to have a lot of veteran guys who have been here before,” Stuart said. “We know what we need to focus on and the young guys who haven’t been there, we’ll give them advice. I’m confident in the team we have and the lineup we have.”
The same goes for the Demons’ team chemistry, built with a group of 12 players who participated in Senior Day activities two weekends ago.
Northwestern State’s roster features 21 players who have been part of a Southland Conference Tournament roster.
“I’m convinced the teas that want to be here at the end of the season are the teams who keep going and are playing well at the end of the season,” Barbier said. “Some of these kids are moving on with live. They have jobs. They’re getting married. All these things coming up are big life events. The ones who can compartmentalize it and understand how fun this can be if we play together for three or four days are the ones who have success.”