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For Northridge, Spotlight Has Dimmed but Not Desire

August 13, 1995|ETHAN SKOLNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If, rather than a "Northridge" insignia, Nathaniel Dunlap wore a red letter on his chest, it would surely be a W.

For win.

"What can you say?" asked Dunlap's manager, Tim Cunningham. "He was terrific again. He had command of his fastball and his off-speed stuff, and the fielding behind him was outstanding."

On the strength of Dunlap's six-hitter Friday night against pesky Oak Grove of San Jose, the Northridge Little League 13-year-old all-star squad advanced to the eight-team, double-elimination Junior World Series in Taylor, Mich.

Northridge (16-2), representing the West, will travel tomorrow and take on a team from the South on Tuesday at 5 p.m. One American team--from either South, Central, East, or West--will play a foreign squad in Saturday's final.

"When we scored, we pretty much knew we had the game Friday," said Dunlap, who is 5-0.

"Now I'm just glad to be there."

Dunlap, soon to be a freshman at Chaminade High, has been there before. Not to Taylor, a town 30 miles southwest of Detroit, but a World Series. Last August, he and nine of his present teammates won the national championship for 12-year-olds and advanced to the final in Williamsport, Pa., before losing to Venezuela, 4-3.

The Taylor tournament is a weak sister to the Williamsport round-robin in terms of publicity.

But that doesn't dull the excitement for this excursion.

Said Cunningham, whose son Matt plays on the team: "The kids will probably be surprised that it's not as crazy as in Williamsport. Last year was just amazing. You had beat writers who normally cover major leaguers justifying their paychecks by covering Little League."

This year has been different in other ways. In 1994, Northridge was impregnable before Williamsport, sweeping 16 games.

"This time, we found out, my God, we are mortal," said Cunningham. "I think it helps playing under some pressure."

The team has only lost two games in 1995, but those defeats did more than debunk notions of invincibility. They also taxed the pitching staff. During the third of four tournaments--the divisional playoffs in Pasadena--a loss in the second game forced Northridge to win four games in five days to advance to the regionals in Sacramento.

Once in Sacramento, Northridge avoided the losers' bracket, but fielded sloppily behind pitcher Peter Tuber and fell Thursday to Oak Grove, 8-1. The result: Cunningham's team had to play another elimination game, with the Taylor trip at stake.

Dunlap--with offensive assistance from Spencer Gordon, Tuber and Mike Frost--did the eliminating.

"We have been playing really well as a team," said shortstop and leadoff man Matt Fisher. "The losses are probably good for us now, but when it happened, it didn't seem so great."

What has been great has been Northridge pitching, a credit to Coach Jim Brown, who has helped Dunlap, Tuber and Cameron Lowe adjust to an unfamiliar distance of 60 feet, six inches.

"The release point changes," said Brown of the switch from the 12-year-old distance of 55 feet.

"You need a longer stride, a stronger follow-through. The curveball has to reach the plate."

Thus far, the staff's transition has been practically letter-perfect.

"Right now, all three of them are ready to work right through the World Series," Brown said. "They've done an excellent job so far."

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