The Oaks will travel to Houston, Texas, on Tuesday for the AABC Stan Musial World Series. Palo Alto will open against the North Atlantic winner on Wednesday, but without Gaffney.
"Losing Gaffney is, of course, a big loss," said Espinoza. "He showed in the West Region that his bat can change the outcome of a game."
Gaffney scored three runs and drove in another in an 11-8 victory over the Bandido's in the championships game of the AABC Stan Musial Western States Regional at Jackie Robinson Field at Brookside Park in Pasadena on Sunday. That earned Palo Alto a second straight trip to the World Series.
In the second round on Saturday, Gaffney stroked two home runs in a 9-4 win in 11 innings over the Bandido's. The Oaks also defeated the Pasadena Redbirds, 15-2, to open the three-team playoffs.
This was Gaffney's first season with the Oaks and his contributions were indeed notable. Espinoza, however, knew he had Gaffney for only a limited time and had to share him with football workouts.
"We knew going in that he would not be able to participate (in the World Series), so we have prepared for his absence," said Espinoza, who was allowed to add three players for the postseason.
"I have picked up three pitchers along the way," Espinoza said. "I first picked up Dominic Hernandez (San Jose Baysox) for the NorCal playoffs. He pitched with us in the West Region, as well. For the World Series, I also picked up Craig Broussard and Jesse Madrid from the Norcal Longhorns. Broussard was the only pitcher to defeat us so far this season. That made his choice and easy one!
The Oaks will take a 20-1 record to the World Series, where they went 2-2 last summer and finished third. The team's only loss came in the opening round of the NorCal playoffs, a 1-0 setback to the Longhorns — a game Gaffney missed due to football practice.
Espinoza still has plenty of talent and a core of veteran players for the return trip to Houston.
"I think the guys who have hung around for my eight seasons, guys like (Jason) Kleinhoffer, (Greg) Matson), (Bryan) Beres, and (Matt) Campbell do so because they love the game and can still play at a high level. If they couldn't, they wouldn't be on the team!"
Kleinhoffer came on in relief in Sunday's championship game and got the victory, with the help of a hidden-ball play and a final strikeout. Campbell struck out two in the bottom of the 11th to get the save in Game 2.
Palo Alto needed to win only three games during the weekend after the NorCal No. 2 team, the Longhorns, dropped out of the tournament due to a prior commitment.
Brant Norlander started the championship game for the Oaks, who jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Jeff Ramirez singled and stole second. Bryan Beres doubled down the left-field line to score Ramirez. Sam Wilkins hit a triple over the left-fielder's head to plate Beres and then scored on an errant pickoff attempt.
The Oaks scored another run in the top of the third when Allen Stiles led off with a single. Stiles was caught stealing for the first out. Gaffney walked and advanced to third on a single by Anthony Bona. Nick Borg drove home Gaffney with a deep fly to centerfield for a 4-0 lead.
But the Bandido's, with a reputation for having a lot of heart, came right back in the bottom of the third with three runs.
The Oaks lengthened their lead with two more runs in the fourth. Beres doubled again to lead things off. Wilkins singled in Beres. A perfect hit-and-run by Will Klein (the Oaks were successful on six of seven hit-and-runs), put Wilkins on third with no outs. Palo Alto High grad Evan Warner knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly to put the Oaks up 6-3.
However, the Bandido's came from behind to take the lead at 7-6.
Palo Alto showed its heart by tying the score in the top of the next inning and grabbed the lead again in the seventh, when Gaffney and Bona both singled to get things started. Gaffney scored on a wild pitch for an 8-7 lead and a fielder's choice on a potential double play ground ball by Wilkins allowed Bona to score and it was 9-7.
The Bandido's scratched out a run in the seventh, but Gaffney singled in Warner and Bona drove home Gaffney and it was 11-8 in the eighth.
Kleinhoffer needed only six outs at that point for the Oaks to secure their second straight trip to the World Series. A perfect eighth inning put the Oaks within three outs. But the Bandido's did not quit.
A leadoff walk was followed by a single to put runners on first and second. A flyout to center set up a memorable play for the Oaks. Will Klein got the ball from center and instead of giving it to Kleinhoffer, hid it in his glove. Kleinhoffer waited on the back side of the mound and when the runner on second wandered off the bag, Klein tagged him to complete the hidden-ball trick. Kleinhoffer then sent the Oaks to the World Series when he struck out the final batter.
The team hug on the mound ensued with Kleinhoffer at the center of it. He missed last year's trip to the World Series due to a job commitment. This time, he's going.
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