Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - July 27, 2012

Winning might not be enough

Palo Alto Oaks face plenty of hurdles on way to World Series

by Keith Peters

Since the first day of the season, the Palo Alto Oaks had a goal of returning to the American Amateur Baseball Congress Stan Musial World Series.

The Oaks finished third two years ago and fourth last season. The 2012 campaign was to provide the opportunity to move up even higher.

While Palo Alto may have two opportunities to reach the World Series at this weekend's Western Regional on its home field at Baylands Athletic Center, the Oaks may have to decline the trip even if they earn it.

"Here's the problem," said Steve Espinoza, the Oaks' general manager who coached the team to the past two World Series appearances. "The AABC cut out paying for the hotel, except for $1,000. They also cut out giving players a daily allowance for food. If that doesn't sound bad enough, they moved it (the World Series) from Houston to (Port Lucie) Florida and are trying to expand the tournament to 12-16 teams. So, they are requiring teams to be there earlier in the week to start playing games.

"Taking away those funds and expanding the tournament is a major hardship on the Oaks. We don't have any more sponsors as in years past and the cost to take the team is $20,000. To add to this hardship is some of my guys work and taking up to six days off to play in the World Series is a hardship on them. I'm unsure that we will go to the World Series, even if we win the West Region."

Espinoza hasn't closed the door on a possible trip to Florida. He said he'll wait to see how things play out this weekend and what kind of commitments his players can make.

The Oaks are the two-time defending regional champion and will their quest to make it three when they take on Bandidos Baseball, the No. 1 seed from Southern California, on Friday at 5 p.m. In the first game, the NorCal champion Sacramento Legends will face the NorCal runner-up Solano Mudcats at 1 p.m.

The winners will meet Saturday at Baylands at 2 p.m., with the first-round losers tangling at 11 a.m.

The championship game is set for Sunday at 11 a.m., with a challenge game (if necessary) scheduled for 3 p.m.

If the Oaks don't win the regional title, they still could advance to the World Series as an at-large team based on the expanded field. Or, Palo Alto may not go at all.

"Things have changed a lot," Espinoza said, "and not for the better."

Palo Alto comes into the regional with a 15-3 record and perhaps better suited than in the previous two seasons.

"I think we're confident," said player-manager Greg Matson, who took over the on-field duties this season with coach Joey Ordonez to allow Espinoza to concentrate on the business side of the team. "It's good we've lost a few games."

The Oaks were 20-1 last season heading into the World Series and 20-1-2 the year before.

"I like what we have now," said Matson, who has nine guys who can throw. "We've always gotten to these (postseason) places with pitching. I'm feeling good about it. Our pitching and defense has been the best I've seen."

Matson, a 2002 Gunn High grad, is in his ninth season with the Oaks — arriving with Espinoza, another former Oaks' player (1974-84). The 28-year-old Matson still lives in Palo Alto and remains loyal to his team and former coach.

Matson is one of nine players who are 25 or older.

"A lot of the guys have been here for five years or more," Matson said. "Guys don't want to give up their positions. I've turned down the most players we've ever turned away."

While playing for the Oaks used to be a way to fill the summer, things have changed for the players in recent years.

"We're playing for a reason every week," Matson said. "The standards we've set — we expect to win."

That's the goal once again this weekend as the Oaks host the Western Regional for the first time in their 62 years of existence.

Lefty A.J. Gallardo is expected to start for the Oaks in Friday's opener. Matson also has lefties Matt Campbell and newcomer C.J. Hillyer. There's also Dominic Hernandez, Brant Norlander, Brian Maihack, Gunn grad Ricky Navarro, Paly grad Jason Kleinhoffer and even Matson, fittingly a closer.

"This is the deepest pitching we have had since I've been here," Espinoza said.

Added Matson: "If we can get some hits, we'll be OK."

The Oaks tuned up for this weekend's regional playoffs by winning two of three games last weekend at Baylands Athletic Center.

Palo Alto topped Bercovich Gold, 7-1, in a nonleague game Saturday before splitting a nonleague doubleheader with the visiting Fontanetti's Collegiate on Sunday, losing the opener (3-2) before winning the nightcap, 2-0.

On Saturday, the Oaks cruised past Bercovich Gold of Oakland behind the powerful left-handed tandem of Gallardo and Campbell.

Gallardo, a first-year Oak coming off a fine senior season at Cal State East Bay, dominated the Gold by allowing no runs and only one hit over the first five frames. Campbell, serving in rare relief duty, allowed one run on one hit in the sixth before shutting down the Gold in order for the remainder of the game.

Leadoff hitter Evan Warner from Palo Alto High hit the ball well, reaching base in four of five chances. Cleanup hitter Bryan Beres had two doubles, driving in two, while Danny Ordonez added three hits of his own, driving in one and scoring twice. The Oaks had 13 hits in all.

On Sunday, Hernandez started the first game and allowed Fontanetti's three runs and five hits through the first six innings. Fontanetti's used four pitchers who combined to allow only two runs on five Palo Alto hits.

Navarro held Fonatanetti's scoreless for the remainder of the game, but three runs proved to be enough for the visitors from San Jose. The Oaks rallied in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with no outs but failed to score.

In Game 2, the Oaks scored all the runs they needed in the first inning. Warner led off the game by reaching first on a fielding error and then stole second. He advanced to third on a single by Allen Stiles, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Beres.

Stiles advanced to second on Beres' sacrifice, moved to third on a groundout and then scored on a single by designated hitter Anthony Bona. Jeff Ramirez had three hits in three at bats combined with two stolen bases in the game.

Hillyer got the win by pitching a shutout for the first four innings of the seven-inning contest. Norlander pitched two more scoreless innings before turning the ball over to Matson, who earned the save with a scoreless final inning.

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