By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
ROHNERT PARK — Baseball teams win close games with stellar pitching, solid defense and timely hitting. Rancho Cotate showcased all three elements as a recipe to defeat visiting Clayton Valley 1-0 in a nonleague game on Thursday.
“We made some great defensive plays,” Rancho Cotate (5-2) coach John Morrow said. “We are not a great hitting team. We are a pitching and defensive team.”
In a pitcher’s duel between Rancho’s Conner Littleton and Clayton Valley’s Ryan Snyder, the difference came down to the sixth inning, which included an outstanding catch by Cougars left fielder Joe Gali, an Eagles error and a clutch hit to plate the winning run by Rancho’s Jordan Ho.
“When two good teams go at it, the team that makes the least amount of physical and mental errors usually wins and today that was them (Cougars),” Clayton Valley (2-2) coach Casey Coakley said. “Rancho Cotate is a strong team.”
The win over the Eagles (Concord) was the first by the Cougars in five tries over the past four years against the East Bay power.
“We avenged last year’s game,” Morrow said. “We mentioned in our pre-game today that it is our turn to beat them.”
Littleton was in commandand economical with his pitches. He threw 68 over seven innings, giving up no earned runs, five hits, one walk and hitting two batters.
“My cutter, fastball and change-up were all working,” Littleton said.
“That guy (Littleton) threw the ball really well,” Coakley said.
All was quiet until the Clayton Valley half of the fifth inning when Gali made a diving catch on a deep fly to left field by Cougars Ethan Utler to end the inning. With the game still scoreless in the top of the sixth with two outs and Clayton Valley’s Tanner Wraa on third, Snyder smashed a liner to left field in a bid to win the game with his bat as well as his arm. Gali, however, came on fast in a full sprint and caught the ball at his shoe-tops to end the Eagles threat.
“I just put my head down and ran (on the fifth inning catch),” Gali said. “The ball (in the sixth inning) tailed a lot — I caught it just in time. I’m used to catching balls like that.
“Our pitcher (Littleton) was throwing his heart out so I knew I had to catch those balls.”
In the bottom of the sixth Rancho finally broke through with an unearned run. The Cougars Will Fenton led off and reached first on a throwing error. After an out and a sacrifice bunt to move Fenton to second with two outs, Ho lined a two-strike pitch into left field for a single and Fenton wheeled around for the game’s only run.
“I was looking for a curve ball and that’s what I got,” Ho said. “This was great, a huge win for us.”
With the Eagles trailing 1-0 in the seventh, Jesse Medrano led off with a single but was caught stealing after what appeared to be a missed a hit-and-run signal. After Ballard grounded out, Clayton Valley rallied with two outs to put runners on first and second before Littleton enticed Utler to ground out to shortstop Kevin McGuiggan for the win.
“Conner pitched outstanding. He didn’t have any strikeouts but he was just pitching for contact and relying on good defense behind him,” Morrow said. “I’m real happy with our start this season especially with the type of schedule we have played.”
Snyder was a tough-luck loser, throwing 63 pitches over six innings, giving up no earned runs, three hits, two walks and one hit batsman.
“He (Snyder) kept us off balance,” Morrow said.
There isn’t much time to savor the victory as Rancho hosts Maria Carrillo in an early-season North Bay League game on Friday. The game wraps up a busy few weeks for Rancho, which will have played six games in two weeks after the game against the Pumas.