On a bright and sunny day at Washington Park in Burlingame on Friday morning, the Palo Alto Oaks' mood did not match the weather after their opening-round AABC West Regional game against the San Fernando Cardinals.
The Oaks' emotions were understandable given the enormous task they now face to reach the AABC West championship game for the fifth consecutive year.
With the loss, the Oaks now have no room for error in the double-elimination tournament, and will need to win five consecutive games to take home the championship.
The Oaks struggled to make solid contact against Cuirite on Friday, as the right-hander struck out eight while walking only one.
Cuirite was especially good at coaxing ground balls from the Oaks, recording 13 groundouts in the game. The Oaks ended up grounding into double plays in three of the first four innings.
"(Cuirite) mixed up his pitches pretty well, but more than anything top to bottom we just had pretty poor approaches at the plate," Oaks' manager/relief pitcher Greg Matson said. "I give him a lot of credit, but at the same time I think we helped him out a little bit."
Brant Norlander started the game on the mound for the Oaks and dominated the Cardinals with his fastball, striking out 12 while giving up just one run in six innings of work. The one area Norlander did struggle with was commanding his off-speed pitches, and ended walking five batters while quickly accumulating a large pitch count.
"I didn't have my off-speed pitches today, I really didn't have them all season. They are tough to develop in the summer when you're not throwing every day," Norlander said. "Luckily my fastball had some 'oomf' on it and I could throw it by their guys. Otherwise I must have thrown three or four off-speed pitches for strikes. That was it."
No. 9 hitter Gilbert Guerra was the surprise offensive leader for the Oaks, pacing Palo Alto with three singles, a run and a stolen base. Besides Guerra there were not too many notable Palo Alto offensive performances, as the Oaks did not record an extra- base hit.
"Wood bat leagues in general are always going to be low-scoring games, so you have to play clean defense and pitch effectively," Norlander said. "On offensive you have to keep putting the ball in play and putting pressure on the defense. It's just how this league is. "
Palo Alto jumped out to an early lead in the third inning against the Cardinals, as Kevin Cali scored a run on a throwing error by Cardinals first baseman Jake Rosenblatt, and Casey Thompson hit an RBI single to give the Oaks a 2-0 advantage.
Norlander kept the Cardinals scoreless until the sixth inning when San Fernando finally broke through by scoring a run on a wild pitch from Norlander.
Matson entered in the seventh inning for his first pitching outing of the season, and faced trouble almost immediately as Jeremy Stearn led off with a walk and, with one out, Chris Jellion reached on a fielding error by third baseman Tyler Finley.
Matson almost pitched out of the jam, striking out Matt Stafford before No. 3 hitter Niko Horwith launched a double to deep left-center field that scored both Stearn and Jellion.
"I wanted to challenge him, but at the same time I just left something over the plate," Matson said. "It's my fault. I pretty much cost us that game, giving the ball up like that."
Rosenblatt followed Horwith's big hit with an RBI single of his own, giving San Fernando a two-run cushion.
The Oaks had a golden opportunity to come back in the bottom of the seventh inning, as they loaded the bases with nobody out for the top of their order.
But Cuirite seemed to find an extra gear on the mound, promptly striking out Cali and Thompson, and inducing a lazy fly ball from Graham Fisher to end the threat.
The Oaks would not get another base runner the rest of the game, and in the ninth, Cuirite struck out Guerra looking to clinch the victory.
Even with the odds stacked against the Oaks for the remainder of the tournament, Matson still felt his team had more than enough pitching to help the Oaks win multiple games moving forward.
"We pretty much gear up the whole year to make sure we have enough arms on the staff to get through a playoff series," Matson said.
Palo Alto's next game will be at the Baylands Athletic Center on Saturday at 10 a.m. against either the Easton Elite Dodgers or Fontanetti's of San Jose. Left-hander C.J. Hillyer is scheduled to start for the Oaks.
If the Oaks keep winning, they could play at 1 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. Should Palo Alto reach Sunday's title game at 10 a.m., it would have to win that game and a challenge game (2 p.m.) to earn a berth to the Stan Musial World Series.