By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

If this had been a year ago, North Clayton coach Doug Henry would not have felt so relieved as he was Thursday to see two mighty clouts from his No. 5 hitter, Justin Smith. That used to be the status quo for Smith. He swung the bat as a sophomore with such ferocity it portended even better things this season.

But Smith didn't progress this season as expected. His production didn't relapse, but it didn't ignite the way Henry anticipated. He hoped for more performances like Thursday's when Smith launched a three-run home run and grand slam in North Clayton's 14-4 five-inning, mercy-rule victory over Mt. Zion in a Region 4-AAAA game.

"He's been lacking this year," Henry said, "but that's what I expect out of him. That would be the norm for Justin. He's just now finally starting to come around at the right time, because we're really at a time where we need to win all of our region games. If he hits, that just does a lot more for our batting order."

Indeed, with five region games remaining, including one at 6 p.m. today against Griffin, North Clayton (9-7, 5-5) must extend a two-game winning streak to maintain its grim chances of making the state playoffs. If they hit as they did against the Bulldogs (9-10, 4-7), who knows what is possible.

The Eagles pounded out 12 hits. Most of them came in the third and fourth innings. Most of the damage came from Smith.

Down 2-1 in the bottom of the third, Smith connected on a high fastball from Drexel Copeland. Two batters later, the Eagles hit a two-run home run. North Clayton took a 6-2 lead and never trailed again.

"They swung the bats real well today," Henry said. "That's what I told them we needed to do. They came out here and they did it."

The torrent of hits continued in the fourth, when North Clayton scored eight runs on five hits, including Smith's grand slam, chasing Copeland from the game.

Copeland couldn't build off a strong first inning, instead struggling with his control as the innings mounted, leaving fastballs up in the zone for the Eagles to feast upon. He was charged with 13 runs in 3 1/3 innings. He walked two and hit three batters, the last of which prompted Mt. Zion coach Art Wilkerson from the dugout to pull him.

"I know he's a battler," Wilkerson said. "I know he's a gamer. I thought he could work himself through it, and I thought he was going to. But you can't walk people."

With the barrage of hits and runs, North Clayton pitcher Devin Alcorn quietly had a fine performance. Perhaps it was just his style, for Alcorn never overpowered the Bulldogs lineup, relying instead on enough guile.

"He's a finesse pitcher," Henry said. "A lot of people get thrown off by left-handers. And lot of people get thrown off by his release point. He's not a pitcher that's going to throw the ball by anybody, and I don't expect that from him. All I ask him to do is throw strikes."

That he did. Though four runners crossed home plate for Mt. Zion, none reached on a hit. Bizarre perhaps, but not unprecedented. Since 1960 in Major League Baseball, eight times the losing team has scored a run during a no-hitter. Twice, the no-hit team won.

Alcorn didn't author a perfect game - he walked three and the Eagles committed five errors - but it was nearly as impressive. It began auspiciously, when after walking Brandon Mapp to start the game, Alcorn struck out three of the next four batters he faced.

By the top of the fifth he was cruising and striking out more. Mapp was his first victim again. Reggie Mitchell was next, Alcorn's seventh and last.

"He just threw strikes, kept us off balance and that's all it takes sometimes," Wilkerson said.

And for North Clayton to get into the playoffs, it will certainly take more pitching like that.

"We're still in the hunt for the playoffs," Henry said. "We have to keep our streak going, we've got to hit the ball big like we did, and if our pitchers throw strikes like they did the last two games, we should be able to beat a lot of teams."