NACODOCHES, TX -- The Northwestern State baseball team had a chance early to put pressure on Stephen F. Austin in Sunday’s rubber match of a three-game Southland Conference series.
Despite taking an early two-run lead, the Demons had a chance to make a bigger impact before seeing the lead disappear in the middle innings of a 5-2 Lumberjacks win at Jaycees Field.
“We have to learn to fight for our lives the entire time,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “We’re good when our backs are against the wall. We’re good when we’re down late. We had good at-bats there in the ninth. We’ve got to do that the entire game to be a good enough team to win in this league.”
The Demons (25-18, 13-11) jumped on Lumberjacks starter Trayson Kubo in the first inning but saw base running undo a promising start.
Sam Taylor singled to start the game and was thrown out stealing before Caleb Ricca drew a walk and was picked off. After Kubo hit Jeffrey Elkins with a pitch, Tyler Smith singled but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
“We don’t do that a whole bunch,” Barbier said. “We had a bad read on the stolen base. Then we’re picked off and got a bad read on the base hit. I thought that guy was really good (Sunday). When you have a chance to get on him, you’ve got to take advantage.”
Northwestern State did take advantage in the third as, with two outs, Elkins tripled home Ricca and Smith followed with an RBI single – his ninth RBI in the past four games – to take a 2-0 lead.
Stephen F. Austin (20-24, 13-8) had an answer thanks in part to the Demons defense.
Demons starter Cullen McDonald (4-1) danced through traffic on the bases to keep the Lumberjacks scoreless through three innings before Sean Moore led off the fourth with a single and McDonald hit Jake Georgiades with a pitch.
Josh Campbell laid down a bunt that McDonald fielded but had to double clutch the throw, leading to a two-base error that scored SFA’s first run of the game and put runners on second and third.
McDonald recovered to strike out Skylar Black and get Antonio Lima on a sacrifice fly to right field. However, Carson Clowers’ first-pitch RBI single gave the Lumberjacks the lead for good.
“We had a bunch of hit by pitches, and we get the bunt play and don’t execute,” Barbier said. “We come out of the bullpen not executing pitches. When you do that and guys have good at-bats at the plate, you have to give them credit.”
Pitching with the lead, Kubo (2-1) settled into an effectively wild final two innings and left with a 5-2 lead.
From there, Northwestern State’s Peyton Graham and SFA’s Tyler Starks dueled out of the bullpen. Graham retired all 10 batters he faced in the final 3 1-3 innings, keeping the Demons within striking distance.
Starks allowed a leadoff double to Elkins in the eighth before stranding him at third. In the ninth, Starks struck out the first two Demons hitters before Sam Taylor singled and scored on Caleb Ricca’s double.
However, Starks rebounded with a called third strike to end the game and earn his fifth save of the season.
“(Graham’s) been really good a couple of times now,” Barbier said. “It’s good to see him maturing as a pitcher, trusting his stuff and competing in the strike zone with multiple pitches. He keeps earning bigger roles every time he goes out there.”
Taylor, Elkins, Smith and Kunert all had two hits for Northwestern State, which tallied 10 hits.
The Demons head home to open a seven-game homestand Tuesday when they host Louisiana Tech. First pitch is set for 6 p.m. at Brown-Stroud Field.
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