Many of the players on the Petaluma American Legion Leghorns team have played in so many big games during their youth baseball, high school and junior college careers that many don't realize how big a deal it is winning the California Baseball Championships.
It is a really big deal, just ask manager Casey Gilroy. Until this year, he had been trying for 14 years to get a team into the tournament. Unlike some tournaments which include as many as 16 teams, the American Legion Tournament has only four teams. You have to be good, and you have to get some breaks along the way to get there. Five times, Gilroy-managed American Legion teams have reached the Area finals, coming within one game of qualifying for state. Those teams that just missed were some very good teams.
Gilroy says the foundation for the team that finally reached state was laid by the teams that came so close without reaching the goal.
"All the other teams have been a part of this," Gilroy said. "What feels so good about this is that the teams that came before worked so hard to be here, and now we've finally made it."
Even as I am writing these words, the call came that the Leghorns had completed a four-win sweep to the state championship and would next travel to Arizona for the American Legion Western Regionals. Their win was no fluke.
"We're playing good defense and we're hitting from top to bottom (in the lineup). Hopefully we can keep it up," Gilroy said.
I'm in no position to gauge how well this team stacks up against some of the Leghorn teams of the past, and there have been some very good teams, but I do know this is also a very good team. I saw them last weekend in the first two state tournament games, and was amazed at how much better they are than even a talented high school team. It is amazing how much improved the Legion players are over their high school days, and most were excellent high school players. Over the course of the two games I saw, I had a chance to look at four pitchers. Brandon Hagerla started the first game, and I was surprised at how he has matured as a pitcher. At Petaluma High he always threw hard, but now he pitches hard. There is a difference. He had five strikeouts in five innings, but more impressively, everything hit off him went straight into the dirt. He gave up just two fly balls in his entire stay on the mound.
It was a little bit the opposite with Scott Hilbert, who threw on Sunday. After watching him all spring dominate Sonoma County League batters for Petaluma High School, I knew he could pitch. I was surprised by his velocity last weekend. He has always thrown hard, but from by vantage point in the Yountville bleachers, it sure looked like he had more zip on his pitches. Like Hagerla, he was dominant for five innings, but ran into a little trouble in the sixth. He got hurt on an unusual Petaluma infield error, but what really fueled his problem was a walk to the No. 9 hitter to lead off the inning. It was one of only two walks he gave up in six innings. On a team of hitters, he was the only Leghorn to hit one out of the huge Yountville park.
Most pitchers would look good with the Leghorn infield behind them. Around the horn, the Leghorns have Weston Bryan at first, Chase Stafford at second, R.J. Busse at third and Anthony Bender at shortstop. They are something to see.
Busse and Bender, both pitchers as well as infielders in their prep days, have cannons sequestered in their jerseys. In just the two games I saw, Bender made some throws from so deep in the hole, it looked like he was throwing from left field. Magician-quick hands allow him to stay with bad hops that would befuddle most infielders. Busse has returned from back and other injuries that have frustrated him for the last two years. He makes all the plays and a few that haven't been invented yet at third base. Bryan on the receiving end, catches everything that is anywhere in the vicinity of his bag. Hitting? The trio hit three (Bender), four (Busse), five (Bryan) in a loaded Leghorn lineup. That infield is all Casa Grande High School produced and is already or soon will be at Santa Rosa Junior College next year.