Consistent pitching has been the key to Northwood’s 15-2 start and senior catcher Slade Baker is the man behind the mask that’s handled the staff well.
But Baker isn’t only handling Falcons’ pitchers, he’s involved with something even more rewarding — special needs children.
“(Northwood head coach Darien Dukes’ son) comes up to some of the games, and I know several other special needs people, including my aunt who had down syndrome,” Baker said. “They are so happy and are smiling in whatever they are doing.
“We went to the (Bossier Little League Challenger Division) last spring, and it was just awesome to watch kids have the opportunity to play baseball and have fun playing whatever version of the game they can.”
Dukes, who’s two-year-old son Gavin has down syndrome, said Baker is always in the middle of a pack of kids, whether they are special needs or not.
“We had a little league team at our stadium Tuesday, and he’s right in the middle of them,” Dukes said. “He’s the first person to come up to my son. The way he interacts with kids is special, especially my boy.
“He just has such a good heart.”
Baker said he wants to be a high school coach and teach special needs children in the future.
But for now, he wants to continue the transformation of Northwood’s baseball program back to a Class 4A title contender.
Pitching coach B.J. Litchfield, who was a minor league pitcher for eight seasons and spent three seasons on the Shreveport-Bossier Captains coaching staff, said Baker has come a long way since Litchfield joined the Falcons’ staff in 2012.
“He’s really bought in to pitching being relational — if you do your best in your classes and then play as hard as you can on the diamond, you start having success everywhere,” Litchfield said. “He also understands that pitchers have different personalities, and some guys you can tell a joke to on the mound while others you have fire them up and pat them on the backside.
“He has a really good instinct. There aren’t that many defensive catchers anymore, and from a standpoint of how he controls the game, he can hold his own defensively anywhere from the (Southeastern Conference) to rookie ball.”
Junior pitcher Timmy Yelverton (5-0), who recorded Tuesday’s win against Loyola, credits Baker and Litchfield as well as the entire pitching staff for multi-year improvement.
Baker’s personality behind the plate has been part of that stabilizing force.
“We asked Slade one time what he would do if he jumped off the empire state building and didn’t break any bones or get hurt,” Yelverton said. “He said, ‘I’d do it again.’ That made me cackle. He’s a true leader and sets the tone for us.”
Justin Gaskin (3-0), Dustin Brown (2-1) and Cole Barnett (3-1 with one save) are other arms with multiple wins this season.
Litchfield added that Baker controls opposing runners as well, and opponents have just five stolen base attempts this season with Baker throwing three runners out.
Baker is also an offensive force, producing team highs of 21 hits, eight doubles, six home runs and 23 RBIs. He’s at the heart of a lineup that includes Deaulton Delgado, Yelverton and returning All-City player Brown (Louisiana College signee).
“He has an ability to hit with two strikes. It’s huge,” Dukes said. “Both of his home runs (this past) weekend came with two strikes.
“He’s using the whole field, and he’s staying inside the ball and driving it.”
Northwood hasn’t won a playoff game since its 2005 run to the Class 4A championship game, but the Falcons aim to challenge local powers like Benton and North DeSoto before making a playoff run this season.