After playing in the 14-team District 52 Tournament the past two weeks, the four-team, double-elimination section event should be a welcomed sight for Palo Alto manager Ted Tracy.
Palo Alto, after all, played nine games in the district tourney and ended up winning seven straight to claim the title with a 10-4 victory over Belmont/Redwood Shores in the challenge championship game.
The most Palo Alto will play in Union City is six games, but Tracy is hoping that won't be the case. Should that happen, it would mean his team loses its opener before having to win five straight to win the title. Tracy would be more than happy to play just four games and move on to the next stop on the postseason Little League trail.
Palo Alto will get things under way with a game against Tracy American at 2 p.m. at Hall Ranch Park (4525 Dyer Street).
Should Palo Alto win its opener, it will play Sunday against District 45 at 10 a.m. A first-round loss means a Sunday consolation-bracket game at 2 p.m. The championship is set for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. A challenge game, if necessary, will be Thursday.
While Tracy is hoping his team takes the safe route in the winners' bracket, Palo Alto is used to battling from behind after beating Belmont/Redwood Shores on back-to-back nights to win the district crown.
Thriving in pressure at-bats, Palo Alto scored all 10 of its runs with two outs, including a six-run, two-out rally in the fourth inning that broke the game open.
"They were pretty immune to pressure," Tracy of his team. "One out, two outs, they don't really think much about it."
Tommy Smale delivered a clutch performance on the mound for Palo Alto, pitching 4 2/3 innings with just three runs and six hits allowed. Smale also struck out three.
"He wasn't really pitching on power like the other guys. He does more changeups," said Tracy. "He's a very crafty pitcher."
Palo Alto has come to count on Smale delivering lights-out performances on the mound. He pitched in all seven games Palo Alto won in the district tournament.
When Smale hit the 85-pitch maximum, Riley Schoeben took to the hill to finish off Belmont, recording the last four outs including a perfect sixth inning.
After being shut down by Belmont starter Matt Carroll for the first 2 2/3 two innings, Palo Alto's bats suddenly came alive with three straight two-out doubles. Ryan Chang doubled in Ethan Stern and Justin Hull followed with another double to score Griffy Byer, who pinch-ran for Chang.
An inning later, Palo Alto again waited until two outs to find its offensive stroke. When an error that would have ended the inning kept Palo Alto alive, it responded with three more hits, including a two-RBI double by Alec Olmstead. Stern and Hull both had RBI singles as well. Relying on two errors and four hits, Palo Alto scored six runs to build an 8-0 lead.
Belmont chipped away at that lead with two runs in both the fourth and fifth innings, led by an RBI double by Nick Garcia. However, Palo Alto was unfazed by the comeback attempt and added two more runs in the top of the sixth to ensure the victory. Ben Cleasby's RBI single scored Stern and Byer came in on a wild pitch.
Stern executed the job of a leadoff hitter to near perfection, getting three hits in the game. Hull and Smale also had multi-hit games.
A deciding factor in the game was not a disparity in hitting or pitching, but in defense. While Palo Alto committed just one error that led to one unearned run, Belmont made three errors that gifted Palo Alto six unearned runs.
"The one thing we really focused on throughout is (having) the best defense possible," said Tracy.
With two runs already in and Belmont threatening to rally in the fourth, it was Palo Alto's defense that quashed that rally. Brian Tracy made a diving catch on a blooper that got Palo Alto its first out of the inning and kept Mitch McCabe at second. Smale went on to retire the next two batters to get out of the inning without further damage.
"If he didn't make that play, we would have been struggling," said Tracy.