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Poise has rarely been an issue for North Medford junior pitcher Colton Westfall.
Posture, on the other hand, apparently has been a sticking point in recent weeks, along with the simple act of breathing.
All three came together nicely on Tuesday, however, in a perfect setting as Westfall was in top form to help lead the Black Tornado baseball team back to the Class 6A state championship game for the first time since 2007. Westfall allowed two hits with nine strikeouts to stymie Tualatin in a 4-0 triumph in front of an energetic crowd at North Medford High.
"That was the best performance he's thrown, ever," said North Medford senior catcher Austin Zavala of his battery mate. "In his whole high school career, that's the best game I've caught of him. Unlike the other games against South (Medford) and Oregon City, he was just in command of everything and hitting his spots and they were having a lot of trouble hitting it."
Tualatin's Joey Fishback took a second-pitch changeup to the left field fence to lead off the game but the Timberwolves were only able to manage a fifth-inning single by Chase Anderson against the right-hander. Westfall intentionally walked one batter and finished with four walks overall, but Zavala threw out one of those runners attempting to steal second and Westfall picked off another.
"I wasn't nervous today," said Westfall, noting he hadn't felt as good on the mound since a March trip to Arizona. "I've been working on posture and breathing and I was just pumped and ready for this game. I think we were all ready. I think it's time for us to go take a title."
North Medford (26-4) will have a chance for its first state title in seven years on Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer when the Black Tornado takes on defending champion Sheldon, a 3-1 winner over Hillsboro in Tuesday's other 6A semifinal. In preparation for the state playoffs, North Medford squared off against Sheldon (23-8) on May 20 in Eugene and scored a 7-4 victory on that day.
"To do this is what you set out for and it's exciting but when you play a one-game playoff scenario anything can happen and any team can beat anybody," said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe, whose team won the title in 2007 and finished runner-up to Crater in 2000. "To get there, we're blessed and we're fortunate. Yeah we worked hard but so does everyone else. We're going to keep working hard and get after it and be ready to play on Saturday."
For North Medford, that means tackling every last detail. In terms of Westfall, that meant a tweak to his mound mechanics and personae as he went in pursuit of his second win in this playoff run.
"We worked real hard on his mechanics trying to get him upright," said Wolfe. "He struggled earlier in the year — he couldn't get his release point — and we couldn't get him on top and we took some video and got his shoulders back in line and better posture so he's able to command more pitches. When you face a good team you've got to get ahead in the strike zone and be able to throw breaking stuff behind in the count and that's what he did."
Westfall also set a relatively patient pace on the mound against the Timberwolves (24-6), who entered the contest second only to North Medford in runs scored at 7.5 per game.
"The thing with Colton is he's a big-game pitcher but he's got to go through a routine, and he forgets to breathe once in a while," added Wolfe. "We focused real hard this week on having him go through his routine and taking a deep breath before each pitch so he's mentally ready. He settled down today and did that each time and so he executed pitches, and when you execute pitches you're going to get good hitters out."
That came into play in the top of the first after a one-out intentional walk to Cooper Brunner set up a double play opportunity that Westfall was able to induce as second baseman Tate Cowden teamed with shortstop Micah Brown to turn the inning-ender to first baseman David Crofton.
"In the first inning we had some good opportunities there," said Tualatin head coach Adam Strachan. "We hit a really hard groundball and there's a lot of luck involved in this game and they happened to be standing right where he hit the groundball and they turn a double play. That changes the entire momentum of the game. If it gets through it changes what they do offensively, changes what we do defensively and on the mound. That's just the way it goes."
Momentum plays routinely seemed to go North Medford's way against Tualatin, with Cowden getting only his third hit in 26 at-bats to set the stage for the Tornado's first run in the third inning against Karter Cook. One out later, pinch-runner Ryan Sutton came sprinting home on a hit-and-run blast by Zavala that fell off the glove on a fine retreating effort by left fielder Chase Anderson.
"That was a big moment in the game and we got all the momentum," said Zavala, who finished 2-for-3 with one run and one RBI. "If he would've caught that, that would've been a real momentum buster right there."
Brown followed with a hard hit through the left side of the infield for a 2-0 advantage.
The Black Tornado doubled its lead with two more runs in the sixth after Tualatin uncharacteristically committed three of its four errors against the first three batters. Brown's grounder against reliever Jacob Bennett was thrown high by shortstop Tanner Marsh to set the tone, then Bennett's high throw to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Crofton left all safe.
Jared Evans followed with another sacrifice bunt attempt, with Tualatin caught out of position on the play. Second baseman Nathan Senger was forced to cover a lot of ground late and when he extended his glove at first base Evans ran through to the bag and the ball ricocheted into short right field to allow Brown to score.
Josh Berman followed with a crisp RBI single to left field, but Tualatin was able to minimize the damage on fine defensive stops by a drawn-in Marsh and Senger on consecutive plays.
Tualatin 000 000 0 — 0 2 4
North Medford 002 002 x — 4 6 0
Cook, Bennett (5) and Gellos; Westfall and Zavala. W — Westfall (12-2). L — Cook. 2B — T: Fishback; NM: Zavala.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry