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Colton Westfall and the rest of his No. 4-ranked North Medford baseball teammates were well aware that they had been swept by South Medford in last year's three-game conference series, and they took strides to make sure that didn't happen again Tuesday.
With Westfall looking every bit like the Black Tornado's ace on the mound, and his teammates making plays whenever the opportunity arose, the No. 9 Panthers found themselves fighting to keep pace before ultimately falling short in an 8-3 loss at Harry & David Field.
The sophomore right-hander struck out nine batters with only two walks and fell one out shy of a complete game after throwing 118 pitches. Of his nine hits allowed, three came in the fourth and seventh innings and resulted in his only runs allowed.
"I was way more hungry today," Westfall said of his pregame motivation. "I just wanted to beat them after losing last year. I was so amped I just wanted to go and go and go but coach (Brett) Wolfe said, 'Just calm down, you'll get them.'"
And get them he did, with plenty of help from his friends on a picturesque day in Medford. Junior David Crofton was 3-for-3 with two RBIs and senior Hayden Evans also plated a pair of runs, while junior Micah Brown scored three times and needed only one pitch to clinch his team's victory after coming on in relief of Westfall in the seventh inning.
The Southern Oregon Hybrid-opening win allowed North Medford to improve to 10-2 overall and erase the negative vibes brought on by last Saturday's loss to Ashland. In a new twist to this year's baseball schedule, the Black Tornado will go in search of a series sweep over the Panthers (8-3, 0-1 SOH) when it plays host to a pair of games beginning at noon Saturday.
"It's new to us as far as the three-game series but I think it's a good thing," said South Medford head coach Ray Smith, whose team had won four of the previous five games against North. "I just like the idea of being able to come back and it's fresh in our mind the things that we have to do to try to beat that club. Hopefully we can work on it in practice the next couple days and find a way to tighten some things up."
South Medford committed three errors on Tuesday and North Medford was happy to capitalize on each one. The Black Tornado scored one unearned run in the first inning after it appeared South starter Joe Cooney was destined for a 1-2-3 start, and tacked on five runs in a pivotal sixth inning behind the other two errors, three walks and three straight bases-loaded hits.
"Our kids never quit and truly battled," said Smith, "but when you give up five runs in the sixth inning against a team like North Medford, they're just too talented and they're not going to give it back to you."
"They certainly won that game outright," he added, "but if we make a few more plays I think we've got a chance to pull that out. That's what we're going to work on."
After Hayden Evans plated Brown in the first with an RBI double, North Medford's lead moved to 2-0 in the third when Crofton allowed himself to get caught in a pickle between first and second base so Brown could score from third on a double steal.
The Black Tornado scored one more in the fourth when pinch-hitter Christian Gillis smacked an RBI single to plate Jared Evans from second base.
Cooney's second single against Westfall provided some optimism for South and was followed by two-out singles from Austin White and Forrest Pierson to make it 3-1. On Pierson's single to center fielder Troy Fowler, however, North Medford wasn't able to nab courtesy runner Brady Breeze at home but was able to get the third out when catcher Austin Zavala fired to third baseman Josh Berman to nab White at third.
"That was the biggest play in the game there and it all started with Fowler coming in like he's supposed to with a nice throw home," said Wolfe. "We didn't get the guy at the plate but what it did is allow us to play catch with the third baseman to get that third out. I think that was a huge momentum-changer in the ballgame and I think that's what I'm most proud of because it was very fundamental and sound and changed the tide of that game."
In the sixth, Berman led off with a walk and then moved to second when Cooney's pickoff throw was short and skipped by Pierson at first base. Reliever Brandon Lupton was brought in with a 2-1 count to Brett Pearson and offered up two straight balls for another walk. After a nice fielding play by Lupton to get the lead runner at third on a sacrifice attempt by Fowler, Taylor Raff walked to load the bases and Zavala hit a liner that managed to elude Pierson's glove, now at second base, for a 4-1 lead.
Brown followed with a similar RBI single to right field and then Crofton belted a two-run double over the head of right fielder Caleb Newman. Pierson then mishandled a grounder by Hayden Evans to allow another run to score.
"We put them on base and when you do that against a good team like North," said Smith, "they're very good at pushing runs across the plate when you open the door for them, and it took us a while to shut that door."
South spoiled Westfall's bid for a complete game in the seventh when Breeze and Lupton singled and Jimmy Sporer drew a two-out walk to set the stage for Eric Wallan, who ripped a two-run single to center field. Brown then came on and immediately got Pat Alexander to line out to center field for the final out to snap the Tornado's losing streak to its cross-town rival.
"That left a nasty taste in our mouth and I've been talking about it since last year," said Wolfe of a sweep that twice saw South win by one run in nine innings. "I don't mind getting beat but I don't like giving games away like we did last year, so we were focused really hard today on three outs per inning."
North Medford 101 105 0 — 8 11 0
South Medford 000 100 2 — 3 9 3
Westfall, Brown (7) and Zavala; J. Cooney, Lupton (6) and White. W — Westfall (5-0). L — J. Cooney (1-2). 2B — NM: H. Evans, Crofton.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry