It didn’t seem to matter whether Nate Smith was standing at the plate or crouched behind it. Wherever he was on the field, the South Forsyth catcher had his pitcher’s back all evening long.
Smith drove in three runs and finished with three hits, including a two-run home run, and the War Eagles defeated West Forsyth 5-3 to pick up a much-needed region victory on Wednesday at War Eagle Field.
South (6-8, 1-3 Region 6-AAAAAA) entered the game winless against region opponents after suffering consecutive one-run losses at the hands of Lambert and Alpharetta. Smith said there was a clear sense of urgency for the team to avoid an 0-4 start in region play.
"Someone needs to step up and I was just trying to do that," Smith said. "The seniors need to step up and I just tried to do my best out there."
Smith (3-for-4, 2B, HR, 3 RBI) put South on top 2-0 with an opposite field home run over the right field fence off West starting pitcher Alec Wilson (4 IP, 2 K, 5 ER, 8 H, BB, HBP) in the first inning, following a single by Anthony Trovato.
West (7-6, 2-2) threatened in the top of the second with runners at first and second with nobody out, but South starting pitcher Zack McCrum (5 IP, 5 K, 3 ER, 8 H, 2 BB, 2 HBP) retired the next three batters in order — the last two via strikeouts — to keep the runners from advancing and escape the jam.
Stranded baserunners was West’s Achilles’ heel throughout the game. The Wolverines left 13 runners on the bags against the War Eagles.
"Missed opportunities, that’s the storyline tonight," West head coach Mike Pruitt said.
"We can’t seem to find a way to get guys to third base. We’ll get them on first and second and that’s just kind of where they’re stuck.
"The game changes with runners on third base. Pitchers don’t like to pitch with runners on third ... but we just can’t get them over there."
The War Eagles tacked on another run in the bottom of the frame when Sam Brady came up with a one-out double, advanced to second on a single by Austyn Jacques and scored on a bunt by Zach Baus.
West got on the scoreboard in the top of the third after Jacob Hill (2-for-3, 2B, RBI) and Alex DeCubellis laced back-to-back singles with nobody out, which later set up a sacrifice fly by Hampton McConnell. The Wolverines cut the lead to 3-2 in the fourth when Hunter Belue led off with a double and scored on a double by Jacob Hill.
South responded in the bottom of the fourth with the help of a one-out walk to Jacques followed by a single by Baus. Jacques later scored on a passed ball and Baus came in when Smith beat out a ground ball to the shortstop for an RBI infield single that increased the lead to 5-2.
"Nate’s not the most flashy or physical player in the world, but Nate is one of the most silently effective and consistent kids out there," South head coach Russ Bayer said. "Nate never really stands out, but he hits a silent .370 or .380 every year. Last year he hit .430. He’s just kind of a silent assassin, if you will.
"Tonight was a big night for him. ... As great as he was at the plate, he worked very hard behind the plate to save us a lot of runs and did a good job with that as well."
Smith helped save one of those runs in the top of the fifth.
With two West runners in scoring position, Wilson helped himself with an RBI single, but Smith caught the throw from the outfield behind the plate and made a lunging tag on Reed Johnston to prevent him from scoring from second and end the inning.
Michael Strait relieved McCrum on the mound in the sixth and picked up the save by holding West scoreless for the final two innings, but not before DeCubellis gave the War Eagles a scare.
DeCubellis followed a leadoff walk to Hill in the sixth by launching a shot to deep right field, but the ball was caught at the outfield wall.
"We hit the ball well," Pruitt said. "I thought we hit McCrum pretty hard, [but] a lot of balls [were] right at people. Their right fielder did a heck of a job tonight and made some nice plays.
"We’ve got a good club — a lot of good pitching and guys that are swinging [well] — but we’re just not there yet."
Bayer was happy with his team’s performance, but acknowledged that the War Eagles will need many more like it if they hope to recover from their slow start.
"Tonight was really the first night ... in a long time that we played legitimate baseball, but we played baseball as a team," Bayer said. "McCrum didn’t have his best stuff ... and we continued to fight.
"Defensively it’s one of the first times I’ve seen in tough situations, not only our middle infielders but [also] our outfielders laying out [for the ball] with guys in scoring position and two outs, simply trying to save a run. Runs were at a premium tonight and they did a wonderful job with that."