Friday, June 21, 2024

College baseball: Knotts’ grand slam, bullpen lift Demons to series-opening win against Stephen F. Austin

by Russell Hedges
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By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations; featured photo by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services

NATCHITOCHES – Hayden Knotts had quite a game in the fourth inning Friday night.

After starting a nine-run rally with a one-out single, the former Parkway star capped Northwestern State’s highest-scoring inning of the year with his first career grand slam as the Demons outlasted Stephen F. Austin 14-11 in the opening game of a non-conference baseball series at Brown-Stroud Field.

“There were a lot of good at-bats in front of me, so I saw a lot of pitches,” Knotts said. “They were moving the line, passing the at-bats down. There was a pitching change, so I dialed back in. I saw a couple of pitches and got an inside cutter, put a good swing on it and ended up homering.”

Knotts’ grand slam – the sixth of the year for Northwestern State – was the final momentum-changing swing in a wild start to the delayed series opener.

The visiting Lumberjacks (10-43) broke quickly with a two-run first and a four-run second that was sparked by a bases-clearing double from Cal Martin that was ruled to have hit NSU third baseman Rocco Gump’s glove.

Martin’s double was the first hit of the four-run inning in which the first three batters who reached did so via either a walk or a hit by pitch.

“We’re always going to keep it honest and accountable, and we’re always going to attempt, at the end of the day, to balance it out and find that happy medium,” first-year head coach Chris Bertrand said. “In balancing the scales tonight, you’ve got to be honest – that’s not the best brand of baseball we can exhibit. That’s not the way in which we set out at the beginning of the ball game to have it play out. At the other end of it, you never want to discount the fact that they fought. You never want to discount the fact we came back from two large deficits.”

Down 6-1, the Demon offense responded with Daniel Young’s two-run home run in the second before Dawson Flowers (4-4) worked a perfect third inning.

Senior catcher Bo Willis’ two-run double drew the Demons (21-31) within one in the third inning before an NSU error helped extend a three-run fourth inning.

That set the stage for a blend of patience and power – and the ability to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake – to build the Demons’ highest-scoring inning of the season.

The most pivotal moment of the eruption came with two outs and the bases loaded before a run had scored. Clay Jung fouled a pitch from Dylan Mulcahy (1-3) off toward the third base dugout that third baseman Peyton Parker over ran. Three pitches later, Mulcay hit Jung – the first of five straight run-scoring bases-loaded walks or hit by pitches that ended with Young’s go-ahead full-count walk off Andrew Kithil.

The Lumberjacks turned to Reid Boyett – their fifth pitcher of the inning – whose fifth pitch turned into Knotts’ second home run in as many Friday nights.

From there, the Demon bullpen trio of Dylan Marionneaux, Tyler Bryan and Caleb Bunch (fourth save) limited SFA to two runs (one earned) across the final five innings their second straight win.

“We can build on that,” Bertrand said of the trio, who struck out eight batters in the final five innings. “We did some good things in the fact there were some good at-bats where we took pitches and created those walks. Knotts was big time with that swing. We know that was not a pretty college baseball game, and we know we have to do some things, but I don’t want to discount what they did well.”

The series concludes at 2 p.m. Saturday in the regular-season finale. Right-handers Caleb Rutledge (1-3, 13.82) of SFA and Kevin Robinson (3-1, 2.90) of NSU are the scheduled starters.

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