Escalon High coach Greg Largent didn’t know what to expect from his top-ranked baseball team in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs.
The Cougars (24-4) had gone a week between games, and the regular-season finale against Hilmar did little to inspire confidence. Escalon won the game, completing a perfect tour through the Trans-Valley League, but the Yellowjackets benefited from 12 hits and six errors.
So when the Cougars stepped between the lines at Billy Hebert Field in Stockton for a game against No. 8 Bret Harte on Thursday, Largent was hardly the picture of poise and confidence.
“In the first round, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You could be one and done. We hadn’t played in over a week, but our boys responded.”
Did they ever.
Justice Naraghi tossed a five-inning no-hitter and drove in a game-high four runs, and the defense, so spotty against Hilmar, was nearly perfect in a 10-0 victory over the Bullfrogs.
“It felt like a normal day. Before the game, I didn’t think I had the stuff to throw a no-hitter, but I felt like I had my normal stuff to get a win,” said Naraghi, who last threw a no-hitter as a sophomore against Hilmar. “My defense helped me out a ton. They made plays.”
With the win, the Cougars advance to a best-of-three semifinal series with Dixon, beginning Saturday at 3 p.m.
“They’re very good,” Largent said of fourth-seeded Dixon, which eliminated No. 5 Mountain House, the TVL runner-up. “It will be a great series. One of the coaches said it’s like looking in the mirror. They may swing it a little better than we do, but I think we play better ‘D.’ We both can pitch.”
That much was clear as Naraghi moved quickly through Bret Harte.
The senior was exceptional, pitching to contact and overcoming an early control issues. He plunked two batters because “he was amped up,” Largent said, and walked one. He also had four strikeouts and notched his 10th win, tied for the team lead with Warren.
It’s the first time since 2005 that Escalon has had two 10-game winners on staff.
Naraghi is 7-0 in his last eight starts, but his latest feat was the work of many.
Infielder Colton Lowney was a vacuum, assisting on four plays after committing a season-high three errors against Hilmar. Catcher Parker Cosby called his own game, and in the fifth inning, completed a back-pick at first base, where Jacob Alvarado caught everything thrown his way. Alvarado scooped throws out of the dirt and made a slap-tag to take away an infield hit.
“We went out there and just balled out,” Naraghi said.
Of the Cougars’ 24 wins, few have been as satisfying.
“It was probably our most complete win of the season,” Largent said. “The guys were jacked after the game, and we were ecstatic how everyone contributed. … It was a total team effort. Saturday can’t come soon enough. Everyone is hungry to get back out there. We’re having fun.”
The Cougars will throw Warren in the series opener.
The junior is 10-1 with a 1.06 ERA and six complete games.
“We don’t have one ace. We have a 1A and a 1B,” Largent said. “He’s a lot like Justice – he pitches to contact. He can dominate if he wants, but it’s nice when we get runs and they can pitch to contact.
“With him, you don’t know if we’re ahead by 20 or down by 20. He has an even-keel temperament. That’s great for a pitcher to have.”
Cosby gives the staff a boost, too.
The TVL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year calls his own game.
“He’s been my catcher my whole life and that makes a difference,” Naraghi said. “He calls great pitchers, he’s quick and smart. He just knows the game.”
Largent says Cosby performs like a major leaguer, studying his opponent and his pitching staff. He not only scripted Naraghi’s no-hitter, but he deftly called a timeout early in the game to allow his amped-up pitcher to catch his breath.
“We’ve been blessed with a lot of great catchers. They understand the game and I just let them go,” Largent said. “Parker does a great job of studying. We give both the pitchers and catcher a great scouting report. He’s like a big-league catcher. He’s so smart, in that regard. He’s a student of the game.”
Zach Abraham was 1 for 3 with an RBI against Bret Harte, while Alvarado delivered the knockout blow. He smacked a three-run double in the fifth inning to induce the 10-run mercy rule. Escalon erupted for five runs in the fifth.
“This really sets the tone,” Naraghi said. “We got the mercy rule, too, so now every team knows we’re going to come out banging. They know we can hit. They know what we can do.”