Oaks special moment
Trip to World Series first in 60-year history of team
Steve Espinoza enjoyed making a special phone call on Sunday evening to Alice Makjavich, widow of former Palo Alto Oaks' baseball manager Tony Makjavich. Espinoza took pride in reporting a very important score of a very important game.
The Oaks defeated the Oakland Expos, 10-6, in 11 innings on a hot Saturday afternoon at Canada College in Redwood City. The victory, in the championship game of the Stan Musial West Region Tournament, gave the Oaks something never before achieved - a berth in the Stan Musial World Series.
The Oaks open against the host Northwest Wildcats, whose roster is littered with former professional ballplayers, on Wednesday, Aug. 11.
"This is a historic moment in our 60th year," said Espinoza, who took over the Oaks seven years ago when Tony Makjavich passed away at age 90 in August of 2003 after guiding the Oaks for 49 years. "For the countless number of people who have been associated with the Oaks, this is for them."
Espinoza played for Makjavich from 1974-84, one of countless players who never had a chance to wear an Oaks' uniform in the playoffs. Even when Espinoza took over, the postseason was unknown.
"In 2004 when we went 23-1 in my first season as manager, a coach came up to me (after a final game) and said 'Good luck in the playoffs.' I had no idea there were playoffs. At that time, it was too late to do anything about it. But, the next year we went to the NorCal State Tournament and lost in the West Region in Long Beach. We took third. Each year after 2005, the goal was t get to the World Series."
And now, for the first time, that goal has been achieved. The Oaks (20-1-2) are headed for Houston, where the AABC Stan Musial World Series will be held Aug. 11-15. Palo Alto is one of eight teams in the double-elimination tournament.
"This is the ultimate goal," said Bryan Beres, who had two hits and drove in two runs Saturday. "This is huge, a great achievement in my amateur career."
Beres came close to a World Series early in his career when his Sunnyvale National Little League team played in the West Regional in San Bernardino and just missed qualifying for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Later on, he spent a year at Menlo College and then - like a lot of his teammates - moved on but continued to be involved in baseball.
This year, just like his previous four years with the Oaks, began just like any other for the 26-year-old Beres. The idea was to play, stay in shape and have fun. As the season progressed, however, playing for a berth in the World Series became very real.
"This is just a great opportunity," said Beres, who drove in six runs in a 10-0 semifinal victory over the Pasadena Redbirds on Friday.
Palo Alto High grad Evan Warner echoed that sentiment.
"As far as going to the World Series, it's something you always dream about," Warner said. "I know coach (Espinoza) has wanted to do this for a long time. He's done everything to take care of us."
Espinoza, like Makjavich, has kept the team going as players have come and gone. He takes care of team's finances, often paying for things out of his own pocket. His car is always filled with baseball gear and he's always at the park - usually Baylands Athletic Center - on Sunday for a doubleheader. It's a labor of love, one the players appreciate and respect.
"This (victory) definitely is for Steve," Warner said. "The guys want to play hard for him."
The Oaks did play hard over the past week, first winning five games at the NorCal State Tournament in Santa Rosa and then three games in the West Region. Palo Alto rallied to beat Oakland in Friday's opener, 7-6, before topping Pasadena that afternoon.
The Oaks had to be beaten twice on Saturday to lose the opportunity to play in the World Series. It appeared Palo Alto might have to play a challenge game on Sunday after the Expos rallied from a 5-1 deficit and tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the seventh.
Palo Alto, as has been the case in the playoffs, refused to give in and scored five times in the top of the 11th to secure the victory.
"This team has that something special," Espinoza said, "The 'refuse-to-lose' mentality that I will never forget. We've had to play through vacations and injuries, and to be 20-1-2 at this point is incredible. We have a good mix of seasoned veterans . . . and we've got some youngsters who are just in college. It's a good blend of both because the vets can shed some light on seasons past, experiences with tournament play. I'm sure that experience helped in the State and West Region tournaments."
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the tournament, and the season, however, comes from pitcher Matt Campbell, who attended Serra High and the College of San Mateo and spent a year interning with the Stanford Sports Media Relations Department.
Campbell has been consistent all season, maintaining a perfect record and throwing a no-hitter in June. Throughout his six years on the Oaks, he's only been tagged with three losses, two by a score of 2-1.
The Oaks put their trip to Texas in motion when Grant Nelson led off the 11th with a single to center. Palo Alto High grad Shane Parsons lined a grounder up the middle that Expos' shortstop Jonny Ash (the former Stanford standout) misplayed into an error. Campbell, who won the game in relief, then moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt.
Oakland walked Will Klein to load the bases, creating a force out at home. That brought up Warner, who had been unsuccessful in his previous at-bats.
"They walked Klein to get to me," Warner said. "I don't blame them."
Warner, who played last season at Canada College and said "I love playing here," ruined Oakland's strategy by lining an RBI single to right to break the tie and give Palo Alto a 6-5 lead. Allen Stiles, who also played at Canada this past spring, followed with a stinging single to left to bring home Parsons with the eventual winning run.
Beres stepped up and ripped a two-run single and Nick Schulz added an RBI single to left, giving him three hits on the day and Palo Alto a 10-5 lead.
Campbell finished up his fine relief work in the bottom of the 11th inning, despite plunking an Oakland batter in the forehead. Two batters later, Ash singled in a run for a 10-6 game, but Campbell induced a fly ball to end it.
Palo Alto pounded out 14 hits, led by Schulz's three. Stiles, Beres, Parsons and Gunn High grad Greg Matson all had two. Beres and Stiles each had two RBI.
"He's been my ace for a long time. Matt knows how to pitch and knows how to mix his pitches to maximize his chances to get hitters out," Espinoza says, with a laugh. "I will cry in my cereal the day he retires!"
The other teams at the Western Region Tournament weren't immune to the pitching talent of Campbell. He picked up two wins, including a shutout over Pasadena that put his team in the championship game.
Oakland left nine runners on base and Palo Alto turned two double plays to get out of potentially big innings by the Expos.
"When I picked up Brant Norlander and I already had Matt Campbell, I knew we had a chance," Espinoza said. "Then I got Blake McFarland and there was a very good chance (for the World Series)."
Pitching depth proved crucial over the past two tournaments and Espinoza pretty much used everyone available. He also went to his bench while allowing everyone on his roster a chance to contribute to the team's success.
It's something Tony Makjavich would have been very proud of.
Palo Alto has a scheduled doubleheader Sunday at Baylands against league rival Fontanetti's (11:30 a.m.), but that may be changed to a single game because the Oaks need to be in Texas on August 10. Espinoza also is allowed to add a few players from other teams and he's looking to pick up a pitcher or two from Fontanetti's.
"I've had other teams with as much talent, but not as much pitching as this years' team," he said. "We'll need that in Texas."
This will be the third time Espinoza has played in a World Series. He played with a Cupertino Thoroughbred team that qualified in 1978 and made it again at the semipro level a few years later with Bigs Realty out of San Rafael, after finishing his brief Major League career with the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, however, Espinoza is making his coaching debut at the World Series.
"It's different," he said, "because the others were as a player. But, it's still thrilling nonetheless. You're the coach, you put the team together."
A team playing for a World Series title.
(Note: Jen Cosgriff contributed to this report. )