Contributed by: NSU Athletic Communications
NATCHITOCHES – A little time off made J.P. Lagreco’s graduation day all the better.
A few hours after picking up his undergraduate degree, Lagreco jump-started Northwestern State’s rally from an early four-run deficit, producing the first multi-home run game of his career, as the Demons edged Incarnate Word, 7-6, in the opening game of a pivotal Southland Conference baseball series Friday night.
“It’s nice to have him back healthy and swinging the bat,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “He’s going to remember this day for the rest of his life. I’m proud of him for sticking with it. He tried to play hurt. He wouldn’t tell me, because he knew I’d take him out. His numbers show it. He was trying to play through it to play his last year. We gave him some time off, which obviously helped.”
Lagreco homered twice off Cardinals reliever Luke Taggart, tying the game with each titanic blast to left field. His three-run home run in the second inning hand an exit velocity of 107 mph while his two-run, game-tying shot in the sixth left the bat at 105 mph.
Three-and-a-half hours earlier, Lagreco was sitting in Prather Coliseum, receiving his bachelor’s degree. His mind, however, was across the parking lot at Brown-Stroud Field.
“The only thing I was worried about the whole time during graduation was the game,” said Lagreco, who drew a key, two-out walk to set up the game-winning run in the eighth inning. “I was anxious to get out here. Me and Nate (Jones) were rushing to get here. It felt good to give (the hand) some time off and heal up a bit. (Athletic trainer) Brittany (Goldberg) has been doing some good tape jobs for me.”
Lagreco’s home runs only evened the game for the Demons (29-19, 14-11), who improved to 21-6 at home this season.
His walk in the eighth inning helped Northwestern State take its only lead of the game.
With two outs and nobody on base, the Demons crafted their game-winning rally against Bernie Martinez (8-1) as Austin Stegall drew a walk and Lenni Kunert followed with his third hit of the game – a single through the left side. Lagreco walked on five pitches before Jakob Nunez drew a four-pitch walk with the bases loaded to snap a 6-all tie and give the Demons their first lead of the game.
“Good teams win games different ways,” Barbier said. “Ridge (Heisler) wasn’t his sharpest today. He’s been pretty good for us for two years. Then, to see (David) Hodo come out of the bullpen and keep a really good offense down and let us get back in the game (was great).”
The Cardinals (32-17, 15-10) touched up Heisler for six runs in three innings, starting with a four-run first inning.
After the Demons tied things on Lagreco’s first home run since April 2, UIW regained the lead with a two-run third inning before Hodo (2-2) righted the Demons’ ship.
The junior right-hander spun a career-long five shutout innings, setting another career high with five strikeouts. In his past three appearances, Hodo has worked 11 1-3 innings, allowing one run and picking up two saves and a win.
Hodo’s relief outing was similar to the one turned in by Cullen McDonald in the 2018 series opener in San Antonio. McDonald worked five scoreless innings against the Cardinals that day, grabbing the win in relief.
Hodo matched that feat Friday night, allowing the Demons to rally for the last at-bat win, although it didn’t happen without some drama.
Hodo allowed a walk and a single to open the ninth inning before Barbier went to Jerry Maddox. Maddox struck out Taylor Smith before an Eddy Gonzalez fly ball put runners on the corners with two outs.
Maddox struck out Kendall Achilles to end the game to notch his first career save.
“After that win at Arkansas, I built off that confidence,” Hodo said. “I felt my best against them and have built off that. (Heisler) deserves (someone picking him up). He’s usually the one throwing shutouts and keeping us from stretching the pen out every weekend. It’s nice, for once, to pick him up.”
Kunert’s 3-for-4 day led a big day for the bottom third of the Demons’ order, which drove in all seven runs. Lagreco and Tyler Smith (2-for-4) combined for the other four Northwestern State hits.
Ryan Gonzalez (3-for-3), Eddy Gonzalez (2-for-5) and Lee Thomas (2-for-4, home run) sparked UIW’s 10-hit attack.
The series continues Saturday with a 2 p.m. matchup. Senior right-hander Nathan Jones (7-2, 2.22) takes the mound for the Demons, who will honor their 11-man senior class on Senior Day, presented by the Northwestern State chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.