Both Palo Alto teams tuned up for the next round of postseason play by winning their respective District 6 titles last weekend — both of which were just three-team affairs. On Saturday, both squads begin play in eight-team, double-elimination tourneys.
The 15s will open against District 4 champ Washington Manor of San Leandro at Bartholomew Sports Park in Elk Grove at 4 p.m. The winner advances to a Sunday winners'-bracket game at 7 p.m., while the loser will play Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Palo Alto 14s, meanwhile, also head into the Sacramento area and will play host Woodland on Saturday at Clark Field at 7 p.m. The winner will advance to a Sunday game at 7 p.m., while the loser will play Sunday at 1 p.m.
After the Palo Alto 14s District 6 finale last Saturday, manager Andrew Shenk compared his team to the San Francisco Giants for their tendency to create torturous outcomes that put both the players and spectators through intense fits of nervousness.
Saturday's ending would have made even the King of Torture, Giants' closer Brian Wilson, proud.
Palo Alto nearly blew an 8-1 seventh-inning lead to Mountain View, surrendering six runs before tagging out the tying run at third as Mike Bowes tried to stretch his gapper into a triple. The 8-7 nailbiter win at Baylands earned Palo Alto the district championship.
"To go to the state tournament, I'm real excited," starting pitcher Ellis Obrien said. "It's one of the best feelings of my life."
It was Palo Alto's second dramatic win over Mountain View in the district tournament as the team blew a 10-3 seventh-inning lead before winning 11-10 on July 7.
"We have some guys that are stuck in Little League because we're apparently a very good six-inning team," Shenk said. "Hey, we like to provide a thrilling game."
The route to the championship looked to be far less bumpy entering the final half-inning of play on Saturday as Palo Alto needed to simply continue stranding Mountain View base runners as it had done all day. Instead, relief pitcher Corbin Koch struggled with his control and was the unfortunate victim of a two-base error as six of the eight batters he faced reached base.
With two outs, the bases loaded and the tying run at the plate, Shenk turned the ball over to Leo McCabe to face Bowes. Bowes launched a 2-0 pitch into the right-center gap, a shot that easily cleared the bases. However, as Bowes tried to stretch his hit to a triple, Palo Alto conducted a perfect relay from centerfielder Andrew Robinson to shortstop Riley Haught to third baseman Roy Shadmon to gun down Bowes and clinch the championship.
"Thank goodness Riley had a great relay throw there to third and we got the last out," Shenk said. "All I did was turn and go, 'I hope Roy is covering third,' and sure enough he was sprinting back to the back so that made my day."
When Shadmon came in to score on a sacrifice fly by Haught in the top of the seventh after doubling to left-center, he had little idea that he would be the game-winning run. Shadmon, reached base in all four of his plate appearances including two hits, scored four times on Saturday.
He was a part of a four-run first inning that until Mountain View's late rally appeared to be all the offense Palo Alto would need.
"You score first, you win usually better than 80 percent of the time," Shenk said. "Getting four in the first inning was huge."
McCabe singled to right to score Kenta Yanagisawa and Shadmon and Obrien helped his own cause by executing a suicide squeeze bunt to score Haught. Obrien's squeeze bunt was all the more impressive considering that the pitch might have pegged him in the face had he not gotten the bunt down.
"He did well with the bat today, especially early on with that sac bunt," Shenk said. "The sac bunt almost took his teeth out. That was an amazing play."
Spotted those four runs before ever throwing a pitch, Obrien tossed a gem, throwing 5 2/3 innings and allowing just one run. Obrien scattered seven hits, three walks and three hit batsmen by constantly escaping jams, stranding 11 runners, five of them in scoring position.
"I had command of my splitter, which was a new pitch for me," Obrien said. "I've been kind of playing around with it but today was the first game I actually threw it, so it was a pretty new deal for me but it happened to work well."
Palo Alto added another run in the third and two more in the fifth as Obrien roped a two-out single into right field to score Shadmon and McCabe. Obrien finished the game with four RBI.
The Palo Alto 15s, meanwhile, also had a close call before clinching its district crown on July 8 with a 6-5 win over Bel-Mateo in nine innings at Mountain View's McKelvey Park.
Leftfielder Chris Lee drove in the game-winning run for Palo Alto, driving in Alec Furrier with no outs in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win. Furrier began the inning with a triple to right-center, Palo Alto's only extra-base hit of the day. Bel-Mateo then intentionally walked the next two batters to create a forceout at home, putting the pressure all on Lee.
"When they walked the two guys, I went up to Chris and I said, 'Hey, be ready. We might do a squeeze here,'" manager Ron Fried said. "He goes, 'You're kidding, bases loaded and no outs, you're going to squeeze?' I said, 'You going to get the hit?' He goes, 'Yeah, I'll get the hit.'"
Lee and Furrier's heroics were made possible only by an incredible three-run rally in the seventh inning that revived Palo Alto when it was down to its final out.
Trailing 5-2 with runners on second and third and two outs, first baseman Christian Kurtella blooped a ball into a Bermuda Triangle between the shortstop and the left fielder, scoring Marcus Avelar and Chris Smith. Kurtella then came around to score the tying run on a base hit up the middle by Daniel Tachna-Fram.
"I figured if we could just get one guy one, then we'll see what happens from there," Fried said. "Then they've got to start focusing a little more. (The pitcher) starts to lose the zone a little bit."
With only three hits entering the seventh inning, Palo Alto more than doubled its hit total as it finally got to Bel-Mateo starter Jesse Austin, driving him from the game.
"They tried to go with him as long as they could. He just started losing the zone, getting tired," Fried said. "If you're going to leave the guy in there for seven innings, we're going to start taking pitches and force the guy to start throwing more and more pitches. That's when he started to lose it."
Austin tossed a gem in Bel-Mateo's 4-3 victory over Palo Alto in opening round of the district tournament.
Smith threw four innings of nearly perfect relief, surrendering just one hit to allow Palo Alto to climb back into the game and then hold the tie long enough for Lee's game-winner. Smith, the game's winning pitcher, walked one batter and pegged another while striking out four.
"I had my knuckleball going on. I just tried to keep it low, don't give them anything to hit, get ahead early in the count," Smith said. "They were hitting a lot of ground balls and it was working."
Palo Alto struck first, scoring twice in the second inning on just one hit. Lee drove in a run with a flyout to right field as Tachna-Fram employed a nice hook slide to just beat the tag. Jacob Hoffman also scored on a throwing error.
However, Palo Alto starter Brett Moriarty struggled with his control in the third after perfect first and second innings. Four walks and a three-run double by Neil Sterling allowed Bel-Mateo to score four times.
Bel-Mateo added an insurance run in the fifth with back-to-back doubles, but Hoffman limited the damage on the hill, preventing another run from scoring despite facing runners on second and third with no outs. Hoffman's ability to escape the jam proved crucial as Palo Alto found just enough offence in the seventh to claw its way back into the game.
"I can't say enough about our guys and just the resiliency to hang in there, down 5-2 in the bottom of the seventh, and somehow make things happen," Fried said.