The game was tied when Bryan Beres came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning for the Palo Alto Oaks in the championship game of the AABC Northern California State Tournament against the NorCal Longhorns on Sunday in San Jose.
The Oaks had just rallied for three runs to deadlock the contest and now Beres had a chance to be the game's hero with two out and the winning run at third. Beres worked the count full, needing only a ball or base hit to end the game.
Beres swung on the final pitch and struck out, sending the game to extra innings. Fortunately for Beres, he got another chance to redeem himself.
In the bottom of the 11th, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney led off with a broken-bat double to center as the centerfielder dived for Gaffney's hit and just missed it. Gaffney hustled into second base to put the Oaks in business. Anthony Bona was intentionally walked to put the force on, so Palo Alto manager Steve Espinoza called for a bunt. Nick Borg responded with a sacrifice to the runners to second and third.
Jeff Ramirez was walked to load the bases and that brought up Beres again with another opportunity to knock in the winning run. The Longhorns' pitcher got behind 3-0 but came back to throw two strikes. On the full-count pitch, Beres came through with s sharp single between the shortstop and third baseman to drive home Gaffney with the winning run.
Palo Alto's 7-6 victory gave the Oaks their second straight NorCal State title and another berth in the AABC Stan Musial Western States Regional. The Oaks (17-1) will caravan to Southern Califonia on Thursday night for Friday's start of the tourney at The Masters College in Santa Clarita.
Palo Alto will face the No. 2 SoCal team in an opening-round game on Friday at 4:30 p.m. The finals are scheduled for Sunday at Brookside Park in Pasadena at 9 a.m., with a challenge game (if necessary) starting around noon.
The tournament champion will advance to the Stan Musial World Series in Houston, Texas.
Palo Alto actually clinched a trip to the regionals on Sunday morning when its opponent, Solano, failed to show. That left only the Oaks and the Longhorns, with the tourney's top two teams advancing.
The championship game, as it turned out, also had no bearing on the Oaks' trip this week because the Longhorns had committed to another tournament in Marysville and had planned on skipping the regional in Southern California no matter the outcome.
Espinoza, however, didn't know that at the time and played the finale like it was an all-or-nothing game.
"We came to win the Northern California championship," Espinoza said, "and that's what we did."
Beres, 27, is no stranger to wielding a big bat for the Oaks. He had two hits and two RBI in a 10-6 win in 11 innings over the Oakland Expos in last year's regional championship game, sending the Oaks to their first-ever trip to the World Series. In the regional semifinal, Beres drove in six runs to beat the Pasadena Redbirds, 10-0.
Sunday's victory also was sweet revenge for the Oaks, who opened the NorCal tournament on Friday with a 1-0 loss to the Longhorns as both teams combined for nine hits and 18 strikeouts. On Sunday, the Oaks pounded out nine hits, finally capitalizing with the game on the line.
Palo Alto trailed by 6-3 entering the bottom of the ninth with one out, but staved off elimination. Joe McLaughlin walked and back-to-back base hits by Palo Alto High grad Evan Warner and Allen Stiles loaded the bases. That brought up Gaffney, who stroked a single up the middle to score both McLaughlin and the speedy Warner. Gaffney took second on the throw to the plate.
With the tying run on third and the winning run on second, the Longhorns elected to walk Anthony Bona to load the bases. Borg hit a grounder to the first baseman, who made a bad throw to the plate to allow Stiles to score the tying run. Gaffney wound up on third as the potential winning run.
Jeff Ramirez was called on to squeeze and he put down a good bunt, but Longhorns' pitcher Jesse Madrid made a spectacular, barehanded pickup of the bunt and tossed it quickly to his catcher to force Gaffney at home.
That brought up Beres, who took over for starting catcher Tyler Finley in the ninth. Beres missed on that opportunity, but made up for it two innings later. Graham Rodriguez, the fourth pitcher for the Oaks, held the Longhorns in the 10th and 11th innings to get the win.
Dominic Hernandez started the game for the Oaks and pitched five full innings. In the fifth, a leadoff double by Scott Lantis and a sacrifice bunt by Carter Loud gave the Longhorns a runner on third with one out. A grounder to Borg at shortstop was deep enough to get the run home.
In the sixth, Hernandez got into trouble by hitting the leadoff batter. That was followed by a double by Chris Schindler. A walk to Brett Montague loaded the bases with nobody out. Espinoza went to his bullpen for Matt Campbell, who had pitched a complete-game four-hitter on Friday and still suffered the loss. Campbell got some payback as he struck out the next three batters to end the threat.
The Longhorns rallied in the seventh when Loud led off with a tripled to left center. A fly to left was lost in the sun, allowing Loud to score. A single put runners on the corner with nobody out. Brian Maihack came on in relief, but the next batter hit a ball between the Maihack and Bona at first base. Maihack made a nice play at first to get the hitter, but that allowed the runner on third to score. Maihack then induced a fly out and struck out Montague to end the inning with the score tied 3-3.
The Longhorns took the lead in the top of the ninth on a walk, a hit batter, a strikeout and another hit batter to load the bases. A single by Montague knocked in two runs while a groundout by Tyler Tulowitzki plated the third run.
The Oaks scored first in the bottom of the third when Alex Sortwell and McLaughlin both singled, with Sortwell ending up on third. Warner then grounded out to first base as Sortwell to score.
The Oaks scored two more in the fifth when McLaughlin and Warner both walked. Stiles singled sharply to center to load the bases. After a pitching change, Gaffney walked for a 2-0 lead and Borg grounded out to second base to bring home Warner.
After losing to the Longhorns on Friday, the Oaks bounced back for a 7-4 win over the Walnut Creek Crawdads that afternoon. On Saturday, Palo Alto eliminated Fontanetti's 5-3, with Gunn grad Greg Matson getting the pitching win while earning the Oaks a berth in the championship game.
AABC Nor Cal State Tournament
At San Jose
Norcal Longhorns 000 010 203 00 -- 6 7 2
Palo Alto Oaks 001 020 003 01 -- 7 9 1
WP -- Graham Rodriguez. LP -- Jeff Thomas.
3B -- Loud (NC). 2B -- Evans, Lantis, Schindler (NC); Bona, Gaffney (PA). 3 RBI -- Gaffney (PA).
Records: Palo Alto Oaks 17-1