Northern junior shortstop Devin Dade wasn't the most intimidating batter Patuxent could have faced in the bottom of the seventh inning of a tie game Thursday. With three hitless at-bats earlier in the game, Dade, the Patriots' No. 8 hitter, had five hits all season.
Had the Panthers looked closely, however, they would have seen that Dade makes his hits count. Four had come with runners in scoring position. On Thursday, his team-leading fifth came on a 1-2 pitch, which he blooped into right field to score Sean McNew from third base for the winning run. It capped a four-run inning that gave the Patriots a 6-5 victory and kept them atop the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.
Northern Coach Carl Smith "has been stressing that this year," Dade said. "Those are the biggest hits."
Smith considers them so important that on the dugout wall he posts each player's statistics with runners in scoring position.
"That's what we've been trying to focus on," Smith said. "You may not get hits all the time, but you'd better get them" with runners in scoring position.
"This was a big win for us."
That policy underscores Northern's success this season. Even though the Patriots (9-3, 8-3) boast a deep and young pitching staff and a fundamentally sound infield, the lineup has only three seniors, seven new starters and no one who intimidates opposing pitchers.
"We knew we were going to have a really strong pitching staff," senior outfielder Curtis Sharkey said. "It was really just up to our offense."
As a result, Northern has relished a string of scrappy victories this season, and none was scrappier than Thursday's.
Patuxent (6-5, 6-5) came into the game having won four straight and led 3-0 after two innings. The Panthers responded to Northern's single runs in the third and fourth with two of their own to take a 5-2 lead in the fifth. When Patuxent senior left-hander Kyle Starr relieved junior starter Kurt Bruce in the fifth and struck out five of the first six batters he faced, Northern looked finished.
With the top of Northern's order leading off the bottom of the seventh, freshman outfielder Colin Brown walked. After he was erased on a fielder's choice by sophomore Nick Sydnor, seniors Eugene Matullo and Sharkey also walked, to load the bases.
McNew lined a single to center field to score Sydnor and Matullo to make it 5-4.
Junior Adam Hoyt struck out, but the third strike got away and Patuxent tried to pick off McNew from first base. The throw went into right field, which allowed Sharkey to score easily from third with the tying run. McNew advanced to third.
"Coach told me to be 100 percent sure on a passed ball," Sharkey said. "When I saw that go into right field, I just ran as fast as I could."
After Logan Coker walked, Dade fell behind 1-2 and fouled off a pitch before taking an outside pitch the other way to shallow right field to score McNew.
Not only was it Northern's fourth consecutive victory -- adding to defeats of Thomas Stone, Leonardtown and McDonough in the previous six days -- it was also the Patriots' sixth win in seven games that was decided by one or two runs. While parity has reigned throughout the SMAC this season, Northern has been the most consistent club, which might surprise most of the conference, but not the Patriots.
"We haven't surprised ourselves at all," Dade said. "But there's no real stars on this team. Everyone contributes something."