On his first home run, Brant Stark pumped his fist toward the sky as he rounded second in a mix of shock and affirmation. On his second, he gave a coy grin toward a special someone in the bleachers as he trotted home. He tossed the ball behind his back to the mound on inning-ending strikeouts. He flew head-first into third base for a steal.
It was Stark’s day in North Forsyth’s 3-2 victory at South Forsyth in a Region 6-AAAAAA game Tuesday. Yes, the Raiders were steadfast if not spectacular on the mound behind starting pitcher Dakota Chalmers and reliever Andrew Grogan and sound in the field with just one error, a recipe that kept North (13-8-1, 11-4) within one game of West Forsyth for second place in the region and the right to host a state playoff series in Coal Mountain.
But Stark stole the spotlight. It started with a solo home run in the first and continued with a two-run blast in the third. The senior catcher added singles in the fifth and seventh innings. By the end, he was 4-for-4 with almost half of North’s nine hits and all of the Raiders’ RBIs.
“My swing felt good,” Stark said. “I didn’t hit very well in BP, so I tried to really focus on my swing, and it felt good.”
“I’ve seen him hit the ball hard,” North head coach Jim Cahill said, “but he definitely had a special night tonight.”
There was some precedent for Stark’s feat. Almost two years ago to the day, Stark went 4-for-4 in a 7-1 loss at Lambert on April 26, 2013, but both the context and magnitude differed on Tuesday.
Two years ago, Stark’s accomplishment came in North’s sixth straight loss at the time. It was the last day of the regular season, a fitting end to an all-together forgettable campaign. Two years later, Stark and the Raiders entered Tuesday night in position to reach the state playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Stark began his show on the first pitch he saw, a high fastball from South starter Anthony Trovato that Stark sent with the wind to right field and over the fence. He circled the bases somewhat amazed.
“I know he doesn’t throw a lot of fastballs,” Stark said, “so I was looking for it and got lucky and hit one over.”
An inning later, Stark stepped to the plate with Zac Slaton on first after a line drive single. Stark jumped on Trovato’s first pitch again. This one he was sure of. The ball soared over the wall in left-center field, and North led 3-0.
“I was a little out front, but it was a good pitch and I got ahold of it,” Stark said.
Chalmers and Grogan made the runs hold up, though barely. Chalmers struggled to harness his electric stuff, walking six and hitting two batters in four innings. He allowed a two-run double to South’s Jordan McGriff in the third that cut North’s lead to 3-2. He escaped bases-loaded jams in the second and third innings. Grogan got the save in three scoreless innings of relief, thanks in part to stranding runners on second and third in the bottom of the sixth.
“[Chalmers and Grogan] have been a pretty good combination all year long,” Cahill said.
Stark might have shared some of the stage with his teammates if not for South’s defense. War Eagles right fielder Max Schmal cut down Cory Campbell at homeplate trying to score on a line drive by Chalmers in the third. Matthew Heard raced around the base paths hoping to score from first on Jake Craddock’s fly ball that fell between two South outfielders in the fourth inning. Instead, Alec Kliphouse’s relay throw got there first.
They seemed like prime opportunities not to be wasted. Seasons across all of Forsyth County baseball have been characterized by tight games with thin margins for error. North and South knew that all too well after their first meeting, an 11-10 affair with wild swings back and forth.
It turned out Stark had already done enough damage.
“We didn’t execute flawlessly tonight, but South played tremendous defense,” Cahill said. “Trovato threw a heck of a game. I guess Brant was kind of the deciding factor.”