SANFORD — Fresh off of a loss at Southern Lee last Thursday, Northwood head baseball coach David Miller struggled to find a positive takeaway.
After all, his team’s offense was practically nonexistent, mustering just three hits and driving in a single run (with another coming off of an error) in seven innings against junior Kale Scruggs, the Cavaliers’ ace.
His team’s defense — marred by mistakes — let a couple of routine fly balls turn into big runs for the Cavaliers, adding to the Chargers’ deficit late in the game.
And his team’s 7-2 loss to the Cavaliers (8-6) marked its third defeat in four games after dropping a pair to the Person Rockets (5-9) a week earlier.
However, it didn’t take long for Miller to mention one player that caught his eye in the loss: junior pitcher Nathan McWilliams.
“We got two really strong innings from Nathan McWilliams,” Miller said of his relief pitcher, who threw two scoreless innings in the back third of the contest, allowing just one total hit in the sixth and seventh frames.
While the Chargers were unable to take advantage of McWilliams’ outing on Thursday — scoring one run in the final six innings after taking a 1-0 lead early — the opposite was true for his start just two days later.
McWilliams took the mound against the Carrboro Jaguars last Saturday afternoon and delivered a gem, allowing one earned run on six hits and two walks through five innings as the Chargers cruised to a 7-3 road victory.
It was the eighth time this season that the Chargers’ pitching staff held its opponent to three or fewer runs. They’ve won all eight of those games.
“The pitching all year has done a really good job,” said Miller after the Chargers’ 5-2 win over Union Pines on April 6, one day before the loss to Southern Lee. “They’ve done well enough to win if we execute at the plate and put some good defense behind them.”
Solid outings — like the one received by McWilliams — are increasingly important when a team has a grueling stretch like the Chargers, who were scheduled to play three games in four days last week, with two of them coming on the road at Southern Lee and Carrboro.
It all started on April 6 with junior Salvador Delgado, who threw six strong innings against Union Pines, allowing just two runs on seven hits, striking out two batters in the process.
It was the first time all season that a Chargers pitcher threw for more than four innings in a game, a crucial feat that allowed the rest of Northwood’s staff to rest up for the short road trip — minus senior Mason Bae, who earned the save by striking out two of three batters faced in the seventh.
“Getting six innings out of him sets up the pitching staff for the rest of the week,” Miller said. “And he did a really good job.”
Then came the game in Sanford against the Cavaliers, where the mixture of sophomore Andrew Johnson, senior Walker Johnson and McWilliams — throwing two innings each — combined to allow seven earned runs on 10 hits.
But while the Chargers struggled from the mound, the bigger issue came at the plate, where simply getting on base seemed to be a Mt. Everest-sized task.
After Northwood’s first three batters reached base in the top of the first inning via hit-by-pitch, single and an RBI single, they didn’t have another baserunner until the fifth, when junior Jackson Shaner walked to lead off the inning.
In between, the Chargers saw swing-and-miss after swing-and-miss as Scruggs downed six Northwood batters on strikes during the heart of the contest, contributing to his total of 10 strikeouts on the evening.
“He’s got a really sharp breaking ball, and he’s got an above-average velocity on his fastball,” Miller said of his team facing Scruggs. “High school is centered around the guy on the mound. When you can change speeds, get those strikes and have good velocity, that’s what everybody’s looking for. That’s tough to hit. So, my hat goes off to him.”
According to his head coach, David Lee, Scruggs has been the victim of great performances turning into losses due to his team’s lack of offensive production.
“He’s had some tough losses all year long, including a 1-0 loss to Scotland, a 4-3 loss to Richmond, and we had a 5-1 lead late against Pinecrest that he ended up losing,” Lee said. “He’s had some tough losses, but he’s been pitching great all year long.”
Scruggs, who threw a complete game against the Chargers, made sure to bring the heat, leaving no room for errors as he tore through Northwood’s lineup.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers had little issue getting themselves into scoring position, driving in all seven runs before the Chargers even had a shot at another baserunner.
Southern Lee’s plate success came from a variety of sources, including superb hitting from its bats — with six Cavaliers knocking in base hits on the evening — and poor fielding from the Chargers, who lost track of a couple of balls in the outfield that resulted in extra bases and runs scored on a handful of occasions.
“We got caught in the twilight sky,” Miller said with a smile. ”There were three or four fly balls that were routine, but they’d disappear. It’s kind of hard to catch a ball (when) you have no idea where it is.”
It may have been a sluggish showing on the second day of a back-to-back, but Miller appeared to shrug it off — both in his words and his team’s actions a couple of days later against the Jaguars.
Northwood’s win over Carrboro, which was fueled by a five-run sixth inning that allowed the Chargers to pull away late with a 7-1 lead, was just the bounce-back performance it needed to keep the team on track in a competitive Central 3A conference. As of now, the Chargers sit in fifth place in the conference with a 4-4 record (10-6 overall), with Orange (in first place, 5-1 in conference), Cedar Ridge (second, 5-3), Eastern Alamance (third, 5-3) and Western Alamance (fourth, 4-4) all ahead of them.
And with a series looming against first-place Orange this week, Miller said his team has a make-it-or-break-it opportunity to buckle down and solidify its place at the top of the conference.
“We’ve got a big series with Orange coming up, then a big series with Western (Alamance) coming up,” Miller said. “A lot’s going to be sorted out over the next few weeks.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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