SUGAR LAND, Texas – Less than 30 miles from where the World Series champion Houston Astros “earned” history in November, the 2018 Northwestern State baseball team “changed” theirs Saturday night.
David Fry’s tie-breaking seventh-inning home run put the Demons ahead to stay, and Jose Vasquez delivered four innings of scoreless relief as third-seeded Northwestern State held off No. 8 seed New Orleans, 7-5, in the finals of the Southland Conference Tournament, delivering the first tourney title in program history.
“This is for all of those guys who have put this uniform on and haven’t gotten to experience this,” second-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “We’ve had a lot of good players come through here and never won the tournament. It’s for all the alumni, for all the staff. Look behind us. Natchitoches showed up in Sugar Land.”
The Demons (37-22) qualified for the fourth NCAA Regional in program history. The 16 regional host sites will be announced Sunday, and Northwestern State will find out its postseason destination Monday.
By virtue of its three straight wins to open the tournament, the Demons entered their fourth matchup with New Orleans (28-32) in the past nine days stocked with pitching while the Privateers were playing their third game in 24 hours, including a 12-inning affair that concluded at 1:58 a.m. Saturday.
An offense that scuffled through the first three games of the tournament awoke early in the championship game against UNO ace Bryan Warzek, who worked on one day rest after throwing 110 pitches in six innings Thursday.
Warzek hit two Demons in the first inning but struck out the side. That would be the lone highlight for the left-hander as Lenni Kunert’s leadoff infield single ignited a four-run second inning that erased an early two-run New Orleans lead.
The NSU advantage grew to three thanks to a pair of UNO errors before the Privateers tied the game with a three-run fifth inning.
Once the game was tied, David Fry turned in the most appropriate moment of his career.
Fry, the Southland Conference’s Player of the Year, turned on a 3-1 pitch from William Griffin (0-3) and drilled it out to left field giving the Demons a lead they would not relinquish and pulling him into a tie for the school career home run record held by Darryl Woods.
Fry’s 31st career home run was a fitting salvo for the tournament MVP, who collected one hit per game – all of which went for extra bases (double, two triples, home run).
“It’s unbelievable,” Fry said. “I couldn’t have dreamt of this. It’s awesome. Our pitchers did a great job, keeping us in it, giving us a chance.”
Luke Watson, NSU’s other all-tournament selection, singled home J.P. Lagreco, whose double off the left-field wall welcomed UNO reliever John Barr to the game.
From there, Vasquez rolled through the Privateers lineup.
Coming off a 16-pitch ninth inning where he struck out the side in the ninth inning of Friday’s win against Nicholls, Vasquez (6-1) allowed hits to the first two batters he faced before inducing a 5-3 double play to end the sixth inning and keep the game tied.
After Fry and Watson staked him to a lead, Vasquez dominated, allowing just a two-out, ninth-inning single across the final nine innings.
Darren Willis had that single and advanced to second on a wild pitch before Vasquez induced Collin Morrill (3-for-5) into a tournament-clinching grounder to Watson at second base.
“Never a doubt for us,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes it just takes one pitch. We got the big double-play ball, got the fans back in it, got the boys back in it. Then David Fry, the best in the business, delivered. What a phenomenal job by him.”
The victory and ensuing NCAA Regional berth competed a turnaround season for the Demons, who have won 17 more games than in 2017 and will play in the national postseason for the first time since 2005, Barbier’s junior season.
In Barbier’s second season, his group of Demons not only collected the first SLC Tournament championship in program history, they lived up to the motto that permeated the team in 2018.
“We changed it, baby,” Barbier said.
— Jason Pugh, Northwestern State assistant sports information director