FAIRFIELD — The struggles of American Legion baseball in other parts of California are a plus to the Fairfield Expos.
Without those struggles, along with the expansion of the state tournament bracket from six to eight teams, the 2012 state champions wouldn’t be making a return trip to Napa County.
The Expos, one of two wildcards out of Area 1, open this year’s state tournament against the Merced Volunteers, the Area 3 champions, at noon Wednesday at Napa High.
The other three games will be at the tournament’s longtime site, Cleve Borman Field in Yountville: Humboldt Eagles (Area 1 wildcard) vs. El Segundo Blues (Area 4 champion) at 9 a.m., Chico Nuts (Area 1 runner-up) vs. San Mateo Post 82 Shockers (Area 2 champion) at noon, and Long Beach (Area 4 wildcard) vs. Petaluma Leghorns (Area 1 champion) at 3 p.m.
According to Expos manager Brad Hanson, Area 5 (south central valley) had no team desiring to play in the state tournament – “No one wanted to come,” he said. “They didn’t want to participate any further beyond league play” – and Area 6 (San Diego area) hasn’t fielded teams in years and therefore “doesn’t exist.”
“They’re basically functioning with four areas so there is no area state champ (participant) from Area 5 or 6,” Hanson said.
Another spot opened up when Palo Alto from Area 2 was declared ineligible because of a roster violation.
Regardless of how his team got its berth, “It’s always good,” Hanson said. “You always want to get to the state tournament.”
In the Volunteers, the Expos open against a team it split a doubleheader with at Laurel Creek Park on May 24 – essentially the season-openers for both squads – Merced winning the first game 5-2, the Expos taking the second 7-4.
“Merced’s going to be a tough first game,” Hanson said.
Hanson said he’s leaning toward going with right-hander Payton Tyler, who is tied with David Hostler for best record on the team at 6-1, to pitch the opener.
“He’s got to pitch his game,” Hanson said. “If he pitches his game, we’ll be in good shape.”
Pitching is crucial in every tournament, but with the field expanded to eight teams, both quality and quantity are crucial, according to Hanson.
“It changes things because, first and foremost, you’re going to wind up with an extra game,” Hanson said. “If it was like (2012), you could win it with three games. Last year it took four. We won the (2012) tournament winning three games in a row. You can’t do that with an eight-team tournament. You need to win four, you may have to win five. You have to win one, maybe two extra games.”
Which is one reason both the Expos and Petaluma, once they found out before playing on Saturday in the Area 1 tournament that both would advance to the state tourney, had a revolving door on the mound.
“We wanted to win the game, but we weren’t going to do anything to destroy our pitching,” Hanson said. “Petaluma did the same thing. They scored 12, we scored nine. We were both trying to win. We weren’t going to do it at the risk of (hurting) ourselves for the state tournament.”
Not surprisingly, Hanson lists Area 1 rival Petaluma, the defending state champ and national runner-up in 2013, as one of the favorites.
“I think Petaluma and El Segundo are the two best teams,” Hanson said. “Chico’s pretty good, too, but I would pick Petaluma and El Segundo as the two teams to beat. El Segundo’s a well coached, well balanced all-round good team. Petaluma, because they have such a potent offense, they’re so hard to stop.”
The Expos-Volunteers loser plays the Long Beach-Petaluma loser on Thursday at Yountville at 9 a.m., while the winners from the same two contests play in Yountville on Thursday at 3 p.m.
NOTES: Hanson, who also serves as FEBA president, has been selected to serve as tournament director for the upcoming National Region 7 tournament to be held in Eugene, Ore., Aug. 7-11. The tournament will feature state champions from Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Wyoming, and the host Eugene Challengers. The winner advances to the American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C.
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or [email protected]