CHINA GROVE — It is halfway through the NPC baseball season and everyone is looking up at Carson.
The Cougars maintained their grip on first place Tuesday night with a bone-chilling 5-3 victory against visiting North Iredell.
“We've never been in this position before,” coach Chris Cauble said after Carson (11-2, 5-1) erased an early, three-run deficit. “So it's extremely nice. But you still have to go out and prove yourself every game.”
Carson didn't win any beauty contests, but it made the most of its opportunities. Winning pitcher Dillon Atwell (4-1) was tagged for three runs on three hits in the top of the first inning, chiefly due to poor location and sub-par velocity.
“He was putting too much pressure on the ball,” explained senior Kaison Denton, who caught the last four innings for CHS. “And maybe not concentrating.”
Atwell, a junior righthander, was a markedly better pitcher over the next four innings. He surrendered only a pair of base hits in the North third, finishing a five-inning stint with five strikeouts and one walk.
“I loosened up,” he said after retiring nine of the last 10 batters he faced. “After that first inning I just got comfortable. I set it on cruise control because I knew I had the defense behind me.”
Carson's offense, meanwhile, never warmed up against a trio of North hurlers. The Cougars managed just three singles, but cashed in on four NI errors and nine free passes. Once aboard, Carson swiped nine bases in 11 attempts.
“The story of the game was all the free bases and free outs we gave them,” losing coach Nick Tomlin said after North (3-7 overall) dropped to 3-3 in league play. “Good teams make you pay for that. And we've got to do a better job of two-strike hitting.”
Carson drew within 3-1 in bottom of the first when Greg Tonnesen and John Daugherty coaxed two walks from NI starter Austin Hartness and DH Heath Mitchem greeted reliever Kyle Miller with a run-scoring single.
Atwell retired the side in order in the top of the second before Carson scored three times to take the lead in its half of the inning. It began when Colton Laws drilled a solid leadoff single into center field and advanced all the way to third base on a wild pickoff throw. Following a walk to Austin McNeill, Laws came home when Atwell bounced into a double play.
K.J. Preseley hit the restart button when he drew a two-out walk, then stole second and reached third on an error. There were two men on when Trey Gibson — North's third pitcher — induced what should have been an inning-ending flyout to left. Instead, a misplay led to two more Carson runs.
“We just did what we had to do,” said Laws. “We didn't play a great game, just good enough.”
Laws helped Carson score an insurance run in the last of the third. With courtesy runner Ben Gragg on third base and two away, he deliberately got caught in a rundown betweeen first and second and stayed there until Gragg crossed the plate.
“I just had to wait for (Gibson) to come right at me,” Laws said. “I pulled one of my basketball moves, giving a little juke, just trying to stay in the rundown.”
It worked — and so did Carson's defense and relief pitching. Daugherty pitched a scoreless sixth and seventh to earn his first save.
“Now if we take care of business the second time through (the league),” Cauble said, “good things are going to happen.”