As the Northwestern State baseball team heads down the stretch of Southland Conference play, it is beginning to look like what its head coach envisioned.
The schedule, once again, will not.
The Demons open their penultimate home series of the season with a 3 p.m. doubleheader, hosting longtime rival McNeese in a matchup of the two most recent Southland Conference Tournament champions. The series also includes a 2 p.m. Saturday single game and a 1 p.m. Mother’s Day matinee on Sunday.
The second game of Friday’s doubleheader will not start before 6:30 p.m. as the Demons will host former All-American Danny Bob Turner’s jersey retirement ceremony at 6:15 p.m. between games. Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader will be a seven-inning game while the nightcap will be a traditional nine-inning affair.
“We always say we want to be a team that plays much better at the end of the season than at the beginning,” fifth-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “This team is trending toward that.”
Despite a bumpy weekend series at Central Arkansas this past weekend, Northwestern State (22-20, 16-12) is in firm control of its postseason destiny with 12 conference games remaining.
NSU enters the weekend holding the No. 4 seed in the tournament, which begins May 26 on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana University. McNeese (21-23, 14-13) trails the Demons by five points in the Southland standings, which give teams three points per win and a point for a game that is canceled because of COVID-19 issues. The Cowboys played just three games in their Southland-opening series against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi because of COVID issues within the Islanders program.
The slim difference between the Demons and Cowboys is unsurprising given the teams’ recent history.
Each team has taken a pair of 2-1 series victories in the past four matchups while they have split a pair of Southland Conference Tournament matchups since 2016.
“We’ve always played each other tough,” Barbier said. “The games have been tight. We’ve had tournament games that have been tight. (McNeese head coach) Justin (Hill) and I have been close since he coached me here. They have an older team and have had success in this league. They have guys who have won a championship and some who have won more than one. It will be a good test for us.”
The Demons have a handful of players remaining from their 2018 SLC Tournament championship roster, but it has been a relative newcomer who has been a stabilizing force in the NSU rotation.
Left-hander Cal Carver made four appearances – including two starts — in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season after transferring from Wichita State.
In his first full season in a Demon uniform, Carver leads the team in victories (5), innings pitched (64.0) and complete games (3) while standing second in strikeouts (67).
“Cal has been a guy who has improved from the moment he got on campus,” Barbier said. “He competes with four pitches. We’ve talked about how Kirk (catcher Austin Kirkpatrick) does a really good job calling his games. They work really well in the second game of a series. That’s such an important game, because it’s a bounce-back game if you get beat in the first one. If you win, you’ve got a chance to grab two games really quickly and set the tone for a long day of baseball because it’s usually the first game of a doubleheader. He’s been fantastic, and hopefully he can continue to be that way down the stretch.”
The four games at Brown-Stroud Field this weekend will be accompanied by a plethora of promotions.
Any 2021 Northwestern State graduate who attends any game this weekend with their cap can purchase $5 tickets for friends and family members as Brown-Stroud Field is opened to full capacity for the first time this season.
Sunday’s series finale is a Bark in the Park game where fans can bring their dogs to the game. Ahead of the final game of the series, mothers of the current Demon players will throw out the first pitch.
Friday: McNeese RHP Bryson Hudgens (0-1, 4.05) and LHP Will Dion (5-4, 3.88) at Northwestern State RHP Johnathan Harmon (4-2, 4.53) and LHP Cal Carver (5-4, 3.09)
Saturday: McNeese LHP Jonathan Ellison (3-3, 3.47) at Northwestern State RHP Levi David (2-5, 3.91)
Sunday: McNeese RHP Ty Abraham (2-2, 5.31) at Northwestern State RHP Donovan Ohnoutka (2-1, 2.33)