CHAPEL HILL — Whatever you want to call it — a turning point, a momentum shift, a pivotal moment — Northwood head baseball coach David Miller has been around the game long enough to …
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CHAPEL HILL — Whatever you want to call it — a turning point, a momentum shift, a pivotal moment — Northwood head baseball coach David Miller has been around the game long enough to know how one play in a game can quickly change a team’s fortunes.
A team hanging on for dear life can suddenly become the one in charge.
Such was the case for Northwood Thursday night on the road at Chapel Hill, where the Chargers used stellar pitching, timely hitting and — most importantly — a moment of defensive brilliance to top the Tigers, 2-1, improving to 6-5 on the season (5-4 in the Big Eight).
Starting pitcher Salvador Delgado went four innings and picked up the win for the Chargers, while sophomore third baseman Zach Barnes delivered the go-ahead two-run single in the top of the fifth.
Not long before the Chargers took the lead, however, they found themselves on the brink as Chapel Hill batted with the bases loaded and only one out in the bottom of the fourth. Up to that point, Delgado, a sophomore, had done well to limit the Tigers, commanding the strike zone. Getting out of a jam like this, though, appeared to be a tough task to face alone.
His teammates in the field gave him a helping hand.
Chapel Hill junior Will Epstein hit a grounder to third at Barnes, who fired home to Northwood catcher Luke Smith for the force out at the plate. Smith took a glance at first, saw there was no play to be made, then quickly pivoted and threw a bullet to third, where Barnes tagged out Chapel Hill sophomore Tyler Stillson, who had come off the bag.
Just like that, Northwood turned two and got out of the inning unscathed. Considering what could have been, the one-run deficit the Chargers faced felt easy to erase.
“Momentum is a crazy thing,” Miller said. “That flipped the game right there. We took the momentum, scored two runs and then we held on.”
For Delgado, the play was the perfect way for his night on the mound to end.
Throughout his four innings of work (2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K), the right-hander gave his club a chance to win. Chapel Hill’s lone run came in the bottom of the first on a sacrifice bunt by junior Taran Coyne-Smith, but the Tigers could never break through otherwise.
Delgado’s approach was to be content with Chapel Hill putting the ball into play — as long as he didn’t give them anything too good to hit — because he trusted the guys behind him.
“To me, it’s all about the defense,” Delgado said. “It’s all about my defense behind me. I’m not the biggest guy on the field, but I put it where it needs to go, and my defense, they had my back.”
For much of the night, Northwood couldn’t muster together enough solid at-bats to get on the board. The Chargers struggled against Chapel Hill junior starter Josh Campos, who threw three scoreless innings, although Northwood leadoff man Mason Bae (3-for-4, three singles) came close to scoring in the top of the third on a single by sophomore Seth Davis before being thrown out at the plate.
Following the momentum-shifting play in the field, the Chargers took advantage in the top of the fifth. Junior nine-hole hitter Martin Gallegos got things going with an infield single, then Bae and Davis each followed up with singles of their own.
With the bases loaded and one out, Barnes — who has also featured prominently as a pitcher for Northwood this season — delivered with a grounder through the left side of the infield, scoring Gallegos and Bae to put Northwood ahead.
“You hit it where they’re not,” Miller said. “The ball that got into left field wasn’t the hardest ball we hit, but there’s nobody standing between the third baseman and the shortstop and we hit it in the right spot.”
Delgado earned the win on Thursday, but Northwood junior reliever Nick Lovingood also massively helped his team by closing the night out with three scoreless innings.
While Delgado primarily offered fastballs and changeups, Lovingood provided a different look with his slider, which proved effective. Lovingood only needed to face 10 batters to record the final nine outs and pitched 1-2-3 innings in both the fifth and seventh.
“He’s a fastball and slider guy, and he came in and hammered the sliders and located it,” Miller said. “He did a great job. We couldn’t ask any more of (Delgado and Lovingood).”
With three games remaining, Northwood’s playoff hopes are slim, according to Miller, as the NCHSAA postseason will feature half the number of teams as a normal year. Yet, both he and his players understand the importance of finishing strong for a young team that features zero seniors and had seven sophomores and freshmen in its starting lineup Thursday night.
“Give us a couple of years,” Delgado said with a smile. “We’re going to be deadly.”