Sitting on a bucket at the entrance of the dugout, Gregori High’s A.J. MacCaughtry might as well be center stage at a comedy club.
The jokes fly out of his mouth like sunflower seed shells, and his zingers often draw a smile from his mustachioed manager, Jim Davis.
Davis doesn’t try to rein in his senior’s sense of humor. He’s been around the game long enough to know every strong team needs balance on the diamond and in the dugout.
When he gets on the mound, he flips a switch and competes. He really does.
Jim Davis, Gregori High baseball coach, on senior starter A.J. MacCaughtry
MacCaughtry, a menacing figure on the mound, has been prolific in both areas.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior is tied for the Sac-Joaquin Section lead in wins after Monday’s mercy-rule victory over Enochs.
Gregori made quick work of the Eagles, scoring 10 or more runs for the 10th time this season. The final score: Jaguars 12, Eagles 0, in five innings.
“Every good team I’ve ever been a part of as player or coach, you always have guys that keep things loose,” said Davis, a high school coach now in his 25th season. “They know when to turn it on and when to have fun. Every so often they provide that moment of levity. That’s what A.J. does. His teammates absolutely adore him. He can be a goofball, but never in a disrespectful way.
“Baseball is a game of pressure. A.J. allows kids to take a breath; to sometimes laugh at themselves or each other.”
Those laughs soon turned to cheers on Monday. With the win, Gregori clinched its first outright Modesto Metro Conference title in the school’s short history. At 24-0, the Jaguars remain the only unbeaten team in the section.
Gregori senior starter A.J. MacCaughtry improved to 9-0 with Monday’s complete-game victory over Enochs. He is tied for the Sac-Joaquin Section lead in wins with Wood of Vacaville’s Titus Groenweg.
The pundits have taken notice. Gregori is ranked 37th in the state by MaxPreps (as of Monday evening) and debut at No. 15 in the latest Cal-Hi Sports state poll. The Jaguars were previously unranked.
“Our kids know there are a lot of hills to climb, so this was another row to hoe,” Davis said. “But it’s something new, something we have never done before.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to get to a point where you’re playing your best baseball going into the playoffs. We know we’re a playoff team. We know we’re the No. 1 seed from the MMC, and hopefully, that comes with a first-round bye. We feel that’s the direction we’re headed.”
Here’s the scary part: Davis believes they’re still improving, and he only needs to look at MacCaughtry’s recent run of strong starts.
Since a shaky outing against Escalon at the Mark Dickens Invitational, MacCaughtry has posted back-to-back complete-game shutouts with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 25-2. He dominated Johansen, a program with just one league win, and then bullied Enochs, a program in the hunt for the conference’s third and final postseason berth.
That’s what Davis likes about MacCaughtry. He doesn’t discriminate – he wants to win every matchup, no matter who digs into the batter’s box.
“He responded the way I expected him to respond,” Davis said of MacCaughtry’s start against Escalon, one of the premier small-school programs in the section. “I don’t think he liked that too much as a returning starter. He took it as a personal challenge.”
MacCaughtry put the Eagles on their heels, achieving an 0-1 count 14 times against 19 batters. He fanned 10, allowing just four hits.
The game was fast-tracked by the section’s top offense.
Tyler Vandemark, Matt Dallas and Colton MacCaughtry, A.J.’s little brother, were a combined 7 of 8 with three doubles and five RBIs. Vandemark and Dallas scored three runs apiece.
15 Gregori’s ranking in the latest Cal-Hi Sports state poll. The Jaguars were previously unranked.
Cameron Mercurio, Travis Graham (double), Sam Hale and Ethan Beaudette had base hits for the Eagles, who cling to postseason hopes.
Enochs is one game back of Modesto, whose magic number is one. Downey sits one game back of the Eagles, and had perhaps the best chance of all three teams.
The Knights own the head-to-head match-up with Modesto and Enochs and close the regular season against Davis. If Modesto and Enochs are swept and Downey holds serve against Davis, Downey once 1-10, would advance to the postseason as the No. 3 seed.
Since starting conference 6-0, Enochs has lost eight of its last 10.
“We realize Enochs isn’t just going to roll over,” Davis said. “We have to take what we need. They’ll compete and we’ll compete, and that’s the mindset we want our kids in all the time.”
With, of course, small bits of comedic interlude from MacCaughtry, who is tied with Wood of Vacaville’s Titus Groenweg with nine wins.
“When he gets on the mound, he flips a switch and competes,” Davis said. “He really does.”
Modesto Metro Conference Baseball Standings
Team (overall record) ... League
Gregori (24-0) ... 16-0
Beyer (15-9) ... 12-3
Modesto (12-13) ... 9-7
Enochs (12-13) ... 8-8
Downey (9-16) ... 7-9
Davis (4-20) ... 3-12
Johansen (5-21) ... 1-17
According to MaxPreps
Beyer at Modesto, 3:30 p.m.
Enochs at Gregori, 3:30 p.m.
Davis at Downey, 3:30 p.m.