The stakes couldn't have been much higher for Campbell McGrath.
When she entered the sixth inning Tuesday during Forsyth Central's game against Lumpkin County, the tying run stood on second base and the go-ahead run was on first. The bases were loaded with nobody out, and the Bulldogs were clinging to a two-run lead.
On top of that, McGrath was set to face the top of Lumpkin's batting order.
"I was nervous, but I knew we could do it," McGrath said.
McGrath quickly induced a weak fly ball off the bat of Haley Sparks, which left fielder Keeley O'Hara corralled and fired back to the infield.
Next came Emmie Graham, who stared a first-pitch strike. The next pitch got away from McGrath, however, and sent catcher Caroline Heard skyward. Luckily, the ball bounced off the backstop and right back to Heard, forcing the runners to freeze. Two pitches later, a deep fly to O'Hara scored the only run Lumpkin would get off McGrath.
With two outs, Amma Johnson took McGrath's 1-0 delivery and skied it to right field. Reagan Bump took a couple of steps back toward the fence and squeezed it in her glove to end the threat.
McGrath didn't allow a baserunner over the final two innings and collected the save to help Central win 5-3.
She backed up a solid performance by starting pitcher Mallory Smith, who scattered six hits across four innings and struck out two.
"It's huge. Our pitching staff has grown a lot, just by numbers," Central head coach Kelly Gordon said. "Last year we really only had two pitchers that consistently pitched, and they were both freshmen. It's awesome to see how much Mallory and Campbell have grown from their freshman to sophomore years, and just for them knowing that they have someone to back them up and they don't have to all seven innings every single game is huge for them."
McGrath showed excellent composure in the sixth inning, but also in the top of the seventh, when she battled back from a 3-0 count and got cleanup hitter Brooke Temple to strike out swinging. Central's sophomore pitcher credited the success to her screwball after the game.
Central grabbed the lead in the bottom of the first, after Taylor Jackson singled from the leadoff position and came around to score on Emily Caron's RBI double. Kylie McTier had an RBI single, then Caron swiped home on a double steal to give the Bulldogs a 3-0 lead.
"I am super proud of how much better we're hitting the ball," Gordon said. "At one point in the game I was talking with Coach Farmer and we had five runs on five hits. So, what that tells me is at least we're putting the ball in play and making an adjustment. I talked about earlier in the year how we want to be on the basepaths, we want to run, bunt, hit-and-run, steal, and all the things. It's super important for us to make the adjustment and put the ball on the ground. I think we did a much better job of that today."
Caron finished 2-for-3 with two RBIs, driving in Jackson again in the fifth inning.
Caron is off to scorching start at the plate this season, going 6-for-8 with two home runs, three doubles and six RBIs.
"Emily Caron is definitely making a name for herself," Gordon said. "I've been hard on her because I know she can be better, and I think this year she's really breaking through. I think she has the potential to be one of the best players in our region if she'll just learn her role and continue to do her job. I know she loves to hit. Her first at-bat of the season she hit a home run and her third at-bat of the season she hit a home run. I think she's definitely learning, 'This is a time for me to take a hack and this is a time for me to do a job.' It's been really awesome to see her grow as a hitter and mature as a hitter."
Meanwhile, Smith earned her second win of the season. She also pitched three shutout innings in an 8-0 win against Johns Creek on Thursday.
"You can definitely tell she has more confidence now in the circle," Gordon said. "I think she's confident in her defense and knowing that her defense is going to play behind her. I always tell her after a big hit or after a home run that the most important pitch is the next pitch. You can see whenever she gives up a big hit, she's coming back and firing."
One of those defenders is Central's shortstop, Taylor Jackson.
Jackson was key in preserving the Bulldogs' one-run lead in the fifth inning. With the tying runner on third base and two outs, Jackson charged a slow roller and nabbed the runner at first to end the inning.
Jackson went 2-for-3 with two runs in the victory.
"She's already an awesome defensive player and she's batting leadoff for us," Gordon said. "In almost 30 at-bats last year I think she only struck out one time before she broke her hand. Just continuing to push her limits and continuing to be a leader on the field. If we're in trouble, that's who we want the ball hit to."
O'Hara also had a hit for the Bulldogs on a bunt single that she legged out. Mary Beth Lowe gave Central an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning, when her sacrifice fly plated Bump.
Central's defense did not commit a single error and its pitching staff combined to issue only one walk.
Central [2-1] is back in action 6:30 p.m. Thursday in a home tilt against Cherokee Bluff.