Central Catholic clinches third VOL title with win over Manteca in season finale
Power hitters usually have a specific place in the batting order. Coaches at all levels assign the biggest bats to the fourth spot in the lineup. The “clean-up hitter” collects RBIs while the first three batters are responsible for getting on base.
Central Catholic baseball coach Danny Ayala has a different strategy. The coach, who has years of experience coaching high-level high school baseball, slotted one of the best power hitters in California, senior Cal Poly San Luis Obispo signee Braxton Thomas, in the leadoff spot. His reason is simple.
“His on-base percentage is higher than anybody else’s,” said Ayala, who is in his ninth season as Raiders’ coach. “If you’re going to throw him a pitch to hit, he can do damage and we can be up a run right away. If you don’t throw him pitches, he can get on base and he can score some runs.”
Among all Valley Oak League batters, Thomas’ on-base percentage (.562) ranks third and his 27 RBIs along with a .485 batting average are good for second. He is 11th in California in slugging percentage (1.091). His section-best 10 home runs are tied for first in the state. He has struck out six times in 21 games and is third-best on the team in walks (13).
“The power is real,” Ayala said. “But there’s also the patience, the discipline and really understanding how to hit. He’s a big bat in our lineup so he’s a big impact guy. Pitchers have to bear down on every pitch, you can’t make a mistake. Him knowing that and him leading the way is why he’s in the lead off spot.”
Thomas flashed his power in Friday afternoon’s season finale, a 6-2 win over Manteca to clinch the Valley Oak League title outright, sending a 2-1 pitch to deep left center field. He was forced to settle for an RBI triple that helped the Raiders take a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth.
The Raiders also scored twice in the fourth and added an insurance run in the sixth.
“We had goals and our boys came in and … got after today,” Ayala said. “The boys work hard. Any coach will tell you the season’s a grind, the VOL is a grind and for us to be able to reach our goals is a big deal. I’m just so proud of the kids, they work so hard.”
Junior pitcher Adrian Garcia earned the start and pitched a complete game, striking out eight Buffaloes and giving up three hits and one earned run. The win was his third of the season in eight appearances.
“I was trying to pound the outside fastball and my slider was really working today, too,” Garcia said. “I was throwing it when I was behind in counts, when I was ahead in counts, whenever I needed to.
“It’s senior night so it felt pretty good to do it for my boys who aren’t coming back next year.”
Part of a three-man pitching rotation that includes juniors Wesley Payne and TP Wentworth, Garcia knew Friday was his day as the Raiders looked to close out the season with a series win.
“We have our three starters who try and go the complete game so I just had it in my mind that I was going to throw the whole game and put it on the line for my boys.” Garcia said.
After playing just six games as a freshman before the season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas helped the team win a VOL tournament championship as a sophomore. His junior and senior seasons, the Raiders went a combined 22-4 with two more regular-season titles.
“It feels very good to leave high school knowing that I won basically every year that I could play,” Thomas said. “This year was a lot different than last year because we had the same team, basically but these guys matured a lot. I had no doubt in mind that we were gonna win the league this year.”
As of Friday evening, the Raiders are projected as a No. 4 seed in the Division III section playoff bracket. They return nearly all of their main contributors from last year’s team that advanced to the section semifinals.
“It’s the game of baseball and the boys know it, but as far as getting taken by the moment, our boys are ready for it,” Ayala said. “They’ve been through it and they’ve been on some big stages already.”