Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
North Medford's stable of quality starting pitchers came in handy this week.
The Black Tornado played three Class 6A baseball state playoff games in five days, and each time, coach Brett Wolfe was able to send to the mound a front-line hurler.
On Friday, it was David Crofton. The senior right-hander overcame a shaky first inning and stymied Lake Oswego on three hits as North downed the visiting Lakers 6-1 and advanced to the state semifinals.
Jared Evans broke open the game with a two-run bloop single in the fifth inning to make it 3-1, and the Tornado added another run in that frame and two in the sixth.
North Medford, No. 2 in the state power rankings, hosts No. 3-seeded Tualatin at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tualatin (24-5) defeated McMinnville 9-2.
The Tornado (25-4) hadn't gotten this far since 2008, when it lost to Tigard in the semifinals.
"That feels awesome," said Crofton, who struck out seven, walked one batter intentionally and hit two in raising his record to 8-0. "This is the furthest we've gone in the playoffs since I've been here."
Crofton is part of a staff that includes Jordan Ragan, Monday's playoff-opening starter, and Colton Westfall, who took the ball Wednesday.
The three of them are 23-3 and each has an ERA of 1.75 or lower.
"The biggest thing, I think, and it's kind of gone under the radar a little bit," said Wolfe, "is we rolled the dice in Game 1. We put Ragan on the mound, and you usually throw your No. 1 on Monday, like they did, and your No. 1 on Friday. But we have three very good No. 1s, as you can see."
Westfall is North's top pitcher, with a team-leading 14 games, 70 innings and 11 wins. But his comrades in arms have proven quite capable.
"We didn't have to run a guy out there with a tired arm," said Wolfe, "and I think they had a guy that gave them a lot on Monday and it caught up with them this game."
Lake Oswego starter Jordan Horak allowed only one run and gave up one hit in each of the first four innings before the Tornado chased him with one out and two runs across in the fifth.
Coach Jake Anders of the Lakers (19-11), said he, like Wolfe, has more than one strong starter, but teams usually struggle the first time they see the left-handed Horak.
"He did everything he could to keep us in the game," said Anders. "At the end of the day, you've got to score more runs than the other team. That's on our offense."
Crofton admitted to jitters in the first inning. After getting a groundout to start the game, an error by shortstop Micah Brown, a hit batter and the intentional walk led to Lake Oswego's run.
Brown atoned with an RBI single in the bottom half, then Crofton took over.
The pitcher mixed speeds masterfully and worked at a brisk, comfortable pace. He allowed a single in the third and two in the fifth.
"That's always been my go-to, going to the off-speed pitches," he said, "and that really carried me through the day."
The rhythm he established is a "mind-set" that is taught to the North pitchers, he added, and he found it after the first.
"I felt like I was able to get into that real quick," said the right-hander. "I made sure I didn't rush too much."
Anders felt the momentum turn in the fifth inning, when the Lakers got back-to-back, one-out singles to right field and had No. 3 hitter Travis Sanders up. But he popped up to second baseman Westfall, and cleanup hitter Tyler Coleman followed with a groundout to Crofton.
"You kind of expect to get another run out of there," said Anders.
Instead, North seized the opportunity in its turn in the fifth.
With one out, catcher Austin Zavala laid down a perfect drag bunt for a single and ended up at second when Horak overthrew first base. Brown was intentionally walked and Crofton drew a walk to load the bases.
Evans, who had struck out and flied to center, stepped up.
"I got out in the first two at-bats and I was just kind of going up there with a chip on my shoulder," he said.
With a 3-1 count, he lofted a single into shallow right that scored Ryan Sutton, pinch running for Zavala, and Brown.
"He just happened to throw a little outside fastball, and I went with it," said Evans, a junior. "That little blooper did exactly what we needed it to do."
Crofton scored on a fielder's choice by Jordan Pond to make it 4-1.
In the sixth, pinch-hitter Isaiah Luzny walked and Christian Gillis got aboard with a bunt single. Luzny scored on a Zavala fielder's choice, and Gillis came in on Brown's second RBI single of the contest.
Brown was 2-for-3, as was No. 8 hitter Troy Fowler, who hit the ball hard in all three at-bats, including a rocket to center in the fifth that was hauled in.
Lake Oswego 100 000 0 — 1 3 2
North Medford 100 032 x — 6 8 2
Horak, Sanders (5) and Oyama; Crofton and Zavala. W — Crofton (8-0). L — Horak.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org