By the time the first inning was over at Lodi’s Tony Zupo Field on Monday, Escalon was looking at a 3-0 deficit.
Coming in to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship game as the visitors, Escalon battled back but almost every sharply hit ball found a Capital Christian glove and the Sacramento-area Cougars downed the Escalon Cougars by a 3-1 final to take the blue banner. Escalon was the three-time defending champion, looking for a fourth straight section crown, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to them,” coach Greg Largent said of Capital Christian, which made the three first-inning runs stand up throughout the contest. “That was the difference, that hiccup in the first.”
The Trans-Valley League champion Escalon Cougars started off the game with a sharp single to right field by leadoff hitter Phillip Kimble and he advanced to second on a ground out but got no further. With two outs, Ben Hood smashed a stinging liner that looked destined to go up the middle but was gobbled up by the pitcher for the 1-3 putout to end the inning.
Starter Brent Montgomery had some first inning jitters, as did the rest of the squad, as Capital Christian capitalized with a batter hit by a pitch, an error, a wild pitch, two walks, a throwing error, and a two-RBI double. After the three runs crossed the plate, Montgomery settled down to strike out the next two batters to end the inning, but the damage was already done.
Capital Christian would threaten but would not score any more runs in the game. The Escalon Cougars, meanwhile, went three up, three down in the second and third innings, with some hard hit balls but nothing to show for it. Defensively, they also settled in, picking off a runner in the second and one in the third.
Nathan Chunn reached base, hit by a pitch in the fourth, and Luis Estrada ripped a two-out single to right field to put runners on first and second but they were stranded there on a fly out to right field to end the inning.
Montgomery then blew through the Capital Christian squad for three straight strikeouts in the bottom of the fourth.
That gave the Cougars some momentum and they scored their only run of the game in the fifth. Kimble got on with a four pitch walk with two outs and Vince Valenzuela came on to pinch hit, sending a 2-2 pitch sailing into right-center for an RBI single, Kimble able to score from first as he was running all the way. Brandon Grogan went in to pinch run for Valenzuela and was tagged out on a steal attempt, leaving the Cougars with just the one run.
More Capital Christian defense in the sixth prevented the Cougars from getting any runs, with the center fielder tracking down a fly ball to the wall from Robbie Steves, then making a diving grab of a sinking liner off the bat of Chunn for the second out. Ben Hood sent a ball sky high down the third base line and the fielder had to back pedal and grabbed the ball, then tumbled to the ground but held on for the out.
A strikeout and two nice plays at shortstop by Steves – including a leaping grab of a line drive to end the inning – were featured in the bottom of the sixth.
With Escalon’s final at bat, a shot down the third base line by Luis Estrada looked like it would go for a double but the third baseman timed his leap and gobbled up the liner. A hard grounder deep at second base from Owen Pangilinan forced a quick throw and he just missed beating it out at first. A strikeout then ended the game, Capital Christian celebrating the title as the Cougars had to settle for runner up honors this season.
Escalon had one run on three hits with two errors; Capital Christian had three runs on four hits with no errors. Montgomery notched 10 strikeouts on the day.
“It was first inning jitters, pretty common,” said Montgomery. “After that, we got settled in but it was kind of too late. And wherever we hit the ball, it just got right to them.”
As tough as the loss was, Montgomery said the team really came together this year.
“A lot of people were doubting us, just like football,” he said. We found a way to battle back against Linden and that’s what I’ll take away from this, it was special to be here.”
The Cougars lost the first game in a best-of-three series to Linden on May 18, then battled back to win two straight on May 22 to get to the championship game.
“I’d like to get that first inning back,” added Largent, but said his team can be proud of its accomplishments, especially the gritty performance against Linden to reach the title contest.
“We overachieved, got hot, made adjustments,” Largent said. “The kids found a way.”
Against Linden, the Cougars opened up the May 22 must-win two game series with a 14-0 victory.
“We scored 12 in the second inning, sent 16 batters to the plate,” Largent said. “The big blows were a three-run triple by Robbie Steves, a two-run single by Brandon Grogan and a two-run double by Phillip Kimble.”
Grogan also had a sacrifice fly in the second, giving him three runs batted in for the inning. Montgomery got the win in that May 22 game, striking out four and throwing just 51 pitches, allowing just two hits.
In the second game, Escalon fell behind 2-0 in the second but tied it up in the fourth on an Owen Pangilinan sacrifice fly and a run-scoring error. Luis Estrada had a double in the inning and pinch runner Adam Roberson scored the tying run on an error, with Ben Hood crossing the plate on the sac fly.
Linden pushed a run across in the bottom of the sixth with a single and a double and the Cougars found themselves down 3-2 going to the top of the seventh.
“We had three outs to work with,” Largent said.
Tad Dimas worked out a walk and Kimble put down a bunt, which stayed fair and left the Cougars with two on and no outs. A pop out on a bunt attempt and a strikeout put the varsity boys one out from elimination.
“Nathan Chunn hit the first pitch into the right centerfield gap, it was off the tip of the fielder’s glove and two runs scored,” Largent said, putting Escalon up 4-3. Chunn was later able to score on a passed ball to make it 5-3.
Linden threatened in the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff single but reliever Hood (winning pitcher) struck out the next hitter and then induced a pop up. On a 2-2 count to the next hitter, catcher’s interference was called and the hitter went to first base, putting two on.
“Their number two hitter came up and Tad Dimas made a great catch in right center to end it, it was a very intense game but the kids weren’t going to be denied,” Largent said.He also pointed to stellar defense from Alec Nerland at second base and Pangilinan in left field, with a “gold glove” on the day for his efforts, while Chunn caught all 12 innings, doing a great job behind the plate.