Northern pitcher Matt Cribbs had plenty of reasons to want to finish off Patuxent in the bottom of the seventh inning on Monday.
The visiting Patriots had a one-run lead, and three more outs would give them their third straight win to open the season. With a complete game, Cribbs could match the strong pitching performances of teammates Chad Kerfoot and Mike Navarro, who led Northern to its first two victories. Finally, a one-run victory would further erase memories of last year's late-season slide, when the Patriots lost six of their final seven games, several by close margins.
But Cribbs had an even stronger motivation as he took the mound in the seventh: He was freezing cold.
The senior right-hander quickly struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh, preserving Northern's 2-1 Southern Maryland Athletic Conference victory and earning himself a respite from the frigid weather.
"I wanted to get out of the cold," said Cribbs, who had struck out one batter through his first six innings, some of which were played amid swirling snow. "I got kind of pumped up, reared back and threw."
Despite the lack of strikeouts, the off-speed specialist was in control the entire game. He allowed two hits, two walks and no earned runs. Outside of the fourth inning, only one Patuxent hitter advanced as far as second base.
It was the third straight dominant outing from a Northern starter. Through their first three games, the Patriots had a team earned run average of 0.33. That number took a hit on Tuesday, when Northern allowed seven runs in a 9-7 win over Thomas Stone, but even then Navarro pitched the Patriots out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Another experienced starting pitcher, senior Jake Burley, had not even been needed through the season's first nine days.
"When [Kerfoot] is on the mound, we know we're pretty much going to win every game," Navarro said. "But our pitching rotation goes deep, and that's where we're going to win some games."
With Cribbs sketching the outlines of Monday's victory, his teammates filled in the details. Senior David Collins blasted a solo home run in the second and drove in Danny Sydnor for the winning run with an opposite field line drive in the sixth.
The Patriots' defense also sparkled in the sixth. Navarro made a diving snag of a grounder at shortstop. Right fielder Jason Seufert did the same with a shallow fly ball. Cribbs even got into the act, fielding a bunt in front of home plate and nabbing the lead runner with a quick throw to third.
"That's a good team, and they made some great defensive plays," said Patuxent Coach Keith Powell, who got five strong innings from starter Justin Brock and two innings of solid relief from Mike Higdon. The Panthers (1-3 after Monday) have excelled from the mound, but have scored a combined four runs in their first three losses.
Northern hasn't fared much better, with only seven runs in its first three games. But the experienced Patriots, with 14 players back from last year's team, have found other ways to win. Now, the challenge is to ensure that a second straight quick beginning -- the Patriots started 7-1 in the SMAC last year -- doesn't lead to another disappointing finish.
"I'm hoping the chemistry stays a little more consistent this year," Northern Coach Carl Smith said. "Having all of them back for another year really gives us an advantage we didn't have last year. Whether it pays off or not, we'll find out. I think it will."