by Keith Peters
Mike Smith's philosophy on the art of pitching is illustrated by one interesting statistic: in 35 American Legion games this season, the number of complete games by his staff is zero. It's not that Palo Alto Post 375 doesn't have the quality of pitchers to finish a game--it does, as evidenced by the team's 29-6 record following Tuesday night's 7-5 victory over Berkeley in the opening round of the Area Two tournament at Baylands Athletic Center.
Smith, however, is just one of those managers who counts the number of pitches thrown by his players. When the number gets too high, it's time to turn the ball over to a reliever.
"Tony LaRussa does this," Smith said of the Oakland A's manager. "Once his pitchers get to their limit, he yanks them."
Smith, too, isn't afraid to use the hook--especially at this week's tournament, which sends the winner to Yountville and the state tournament Aug. 6-11.
With five games in five days the quickest route to the title in the double-elimination event and six the maximum (through the consolation bracket), Smith realizes it's more important to have a pitcher available for more than one outing.
When Palo Alto's Jamie Littlefield threw 103 pitches in six innings during a recent game against Cupertino, "He was done for five days," Smith said of the recovery time. "So he can't throw that many this week. It hurts us not to have a guy available to throw for five days."
Palo Alto might have had the luxury of allowing a pitcher go the distance in this tournament until arm injuries sidelined ace Todd Carter and reliever Doyle Rundell. Now, not even a no-hit bid will keep a Palo Alto pitcher on the mound.
"Under my current pitching environment," Smith said, "I'd take him."
Littlefield started against Berkeley on Tuesday and allowed just three hits during a 63-pitch, five-inning stint.
"We could have pitched Jamie one more (inning)," Smith explained, "but he understands. He can come back in a couple days (Saturday), if we get there."
Palo Alto has the offense to get to Sunday's championship game at noon, as evidenced by its 16-hit attack against Berkeley. Jamal Harrison had two hits and drove in three, including two on a 400-foot home-run rocket that he launched in the sixth to break a scoreless tie. Peter Fukuhara and Kevin Okimoto added three hits apiece.
Post 375, however, will have to improve on its baserunning and defense if it expects to be playing for state honors in the Napa Valley next month.
Palo Alto committed four errors, including two in the ninth inning during a three-run rally by Berkeley that had Smith and Palo Alto followers a tad worried.
After narrowing the score to 7-4, Berkeley loaded the bases with one out when second baseman Mikey Smith booted a double-play grounder. Harrison then misplayed an easy grounder at first that allowed another run to score.
Palo Alto third baseman Chris Cupak ended Berkeley's threat by turning by grabbing a grounder, stepping on third and firing to Harrison to complete a game-ending double play.
Post 375 also had a rough opening when it produced three hits but no runs in the first inning. Fukuhara singled, but was hit by Smith's infield single. Then, after Okimoto singled, he was thrown out stealing. In the second B.J. Rossi singled, but was picked off.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot running the bases," Smith said. "It was butterflies. It was a combination of playing a nine-inning game and being in a tournament, realizing at this point that any team can win it."
In between the first and ninth, Palo Alto played smarter, ran smarter and proved it will be an offensive force to be reckoned with.
After Harrison's two-run homer in the sixth was negated by Berkeley's pair of runs in the seventh, Palo Alto produced the game-winners in the eighth.
Rossi put a bunt down the third baseline and wound up on third when the throw went well over the first baseman's head. After Cupak walked, catcher Peter Rice lined a hit-and-run single to right to score Rossi and move Cupak to third. When Rice attempted to steal second, Berkeley's catcher threw past the cutoff man. Cupak raced home and Rice was safe at second. Bryce Winkle singled into the hole and Fukuhara ripped an RBI single to left.
Okimoto and Harrison teamed up for insurance runs in the ninth when Okimoto singled and reached second on an overthrow and Harrison singled him in. Harrison then went to second on a wild pitch, reached third on a flyout, and scored on a passed ball.
Palo Alto, which played Thursday afternoon against Antioch, will continue its quest for a state tournament berth today. A victory Thursday put Post 375 into a 7:30 p.m. game tonight against Alameda or Danville, while a loss meant a consolation outing at 4 p.m.
Danville defeated San Jose, 5-1, and Alameda beat San Bruno, 11-5, in games Wednesday.
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