Vikings clinch no worse
than co-title, top seed
for the playoffs
To say the Palo Alto baseball team has made a turnaround under third-year coach Erick Raich would be an understatement, sort of like comparing a mouse to an elephant.
The Vikings' program has grown that much under Raich, who is 78-16 and has taken Paly to a pair of Central Coast Section championship games in his first two seasons — winning the school's first-ever CCS title last season and the program's first since 1927 when the Vikings competed in the North Coast Section.
In the five years prior to Raich's arrival, Palo Alto went 74-75-1 under three different coaches, reached the CCS playoffs only three times and lost in the opening round each year. Paly had only two winning seasons during that span.
The current Paly seniors pretty much have known nothing but success. Expectations have been high and the players have been well-prepared to reach them.
On Wednesday, the Vikings clinched no worse than a tie for a third straight SCVAL De Anza Division title after rallying from a 3-0 deficit to pull out an 8-3 victory over a solid Los Altos team on the Eagles' field.
"Just great at-bats," Raich said of the comeback, which moved his team to 12-1 in league (21-3 overall) while dropping Los Altos to 11-2 (17-5). "It was a great job by my players."
Palo Alto will host Los Altos on Friday (3:30 p.m.) to conclude the regular season. Should Paly win, it will be the division's outright champion. If the Vikings lose, the teams will share the crown. No matter the outcome, Palo Alto will take the No. 1 seed into next week's league playoffs, thanks to holding a tiebreaker over Los Altos — how the teams fared against third-place Saratoga. Paly swept the Falcons while the Eagles split.
Wednesday's victory, Raich said, took "a lot" of pressure off his team. Friday's game and the ensuing playoffs are more preparation for the CCS playoffs than anything else. The Vikings are ranked No. 3 in the section, No. 41 in the state and No. 195 in the nation by MaxPreps. Cal-Hi Sports has Paly ranked No. 16 in the state.
"Now' it's like icing on the cake for us," Raich said. "We perennially get better, offensively, as the season goes along."
On Wednesday, Paly got better as the game went along.
Trailing 3-0 heading into the top of the fourth, Paly got a bad-hop single by Christian Lonsky and a single by Isaac Feldstein. Justin Grey faked a bunt, then chopped an RBI single for a 3-1 game. Jack Witte walked to load the bases with two outs, bringing the dangerous B.J. Boyd to the plate. Before Boyd got a chance to perhaps tie the game or give Paly the lead, Grey was picked off second by Los Altos pitcher Luke Wiechec to end the threat.
Despite that deflating ending, the Vikings bounced back in the fifth. Ozzie Braff singled to left field and, with two out, Lonsky ripped a towering home run over the wall in left-center field — well beyond the 345-foot sign to tie the game at 3.
Consecutive singles by Alec Wong, Witte and Boyd in the sixth loaded the bases with no outs for Braff, who singled in two runs for a 5-3 lead. A sacrifice fly by Isaac Feldstein later in the inning made it 6-3. Witte ripped an RBI triple in the top of the seventh and Braff doubled him home to wrap things up at 8-3.
Palo Alto escaped a potential big inning by Los Altos in the bottom of the fifth after the Eagles loaded the bases with none out. Rohit Ramkumar relieved Danny Erlich and induced a groundout with no runs scoring. John Dickerson came on to relieve Ramkumar and face the dangerous Wiechec, who grounded to first baseman Jack Cleasby, who bobbled the ball before tagging the base for a second out. The Los Altos runner at third was slow to react and headed to the plate late, with Cleasby firing home to Lonsky, who tagged out the runner to complete an inning-ending double play.
Senior Ben Sneider, who was the schedule pitcher for Friday's game, came on in relief in the bottom of the sixth and retired the four hitters he faced to preserve the victory.
The win over Los Alto wouldn't have had such an impact had not Paly beaten Wilcox on Monday in the continuation of game halted on March 9 by rain.
The game resumed in the ninth inning with the teams tied at 4. Lonsky scored the winning run on a bunt by Wong for a 5-4 triumph.
In the West Bay Athletic League on Wednesday, Menlo School strengthened its hold on first place with a 7-0 victory over host Pinewood in a game that was delayed more than 30 minutes due to a gas leak in the snack shack.
Jake Batchelder got the Knights (5-0, 14-7) rolling with a three-run homer in the top of the first to provide himself with all the runs he would need. The Davidson-bound senior finished with a complete-game six-hitter, striking out eight while walking none.
Batchelder had two singles later in the game while sophomores Will King and Sam Crowder contributed a pair of hits each.
Menlo opened a two-game lead in the WBAL thanks to Sacred Heart Prep's 2-1 loss at King's Academy on Wednesday. The Gators fell to 3-2 in league (12-9-1 overall) while King's moved into a tie for second, also at 3-2.
In the PAL Bay Division, host Menlo-Atherton remained in the thick of the race with an 11-2 triumph over Hillsdale. Ryan Cortez got the win and plenty of support as Dylan Cook had three hits, including a double, and drove in three runs. The Bears pounded out 14 hits and improved to 7-2 in league (17-5 overall).
In a makeup game Monday, Gunn ran its winning streak to 11 straight by handing host Burlingame a 9-7 nonleague loss at Washington Park. The game originally was rained out on March 17. Gunn moved to 16-5.
Gunn senior right-hander Ryan Gorman took the mound and got his third consecutive complete-game victory while improving to 7-0. Uncharacteristically, however, he allowed at least one baserunner in every inning, and had no strikeouts.
The defense, however, contributed two double plays in the first two innings to shut down Panther threats. On the day, Gorman allowed five earned runs on 12 hits.
Senior Jake Verhulp continued his eight-game hitting streak, going 2-for-4, with a triple, two runs scored, ond RBI and a stolen base. Junior catcher Ben Sampson also had two hits on the day, with two RBI and one run scored.