For his first summer with the Medford Mustangs, Cody James didn't have too many expectations.

For his first summer with the Medford Mustangs, Cody James didn't have too many expectations.

Without really knowing who would be returning to the American Legion AAA team and who else might be stepping in, James kept his focus on the simple things that often escape other ballplayers. After all, you've got to learn to walk before you can run.

"At first, I was just happy to be on the team," says the 18-year-old James, "and things just kinda took off from there."

Despite his high school status as a first-team all-state first baseman, James kept his ego in check and went about fitting in with the Mustangs in any way he could.

Given what has transpired since then, that simple approach seems to have paid off. James has worked his way into a leadership position with the team and is a big reason why Medford is in position to earn its 12th state championship when play begins today at Kiger Stadium in Klamath Falls.

Medford (34-8) opens the eight-team, double-elimination tournament at 4:30 p.m. today against the Madison-Portland Eastside Barbers (29-11).

"He's been under the radar all year and come on really strongly and done very well for us," says Mustangs general manager Don Schneider.

Few on the team are swinging the bat as well as James these days, and he has settled into the cleanup spot and vaulted his batting average to .430 with 38 RBIs.

"This is an important time of year for us and he's really turned it up a notch these last couple weeks and really has put up some good numbers for us," says Mustangs manager Sandee Kensinger.

The recent North Medford High graduate had five RBIs in a 10-0 win over Roseburg Dr. Stewart's two weeks ago that helped Medford clinch its third straight Area 4 title. He trails only second baseman Dan Katayama (.464), center fielder Seth Brown (.455) and catcher Colin Sowers (.453) in hitting heading into the hitter's paradise that is Kiger Stadium.

"He's come through for us and that's why he's hitting where he's at," adds Kensinger of James, who has the luxury of following the likes of Sowers, Katayama and then Brown. "Numbers don't lie and he's put up some really, really good numbers."

For James, it's all been a whirlwind of a summer as he awaits a decision on where he might continue his baseball days in college.

"It's been amazing; it's definitely exceeded my expectations," says the 6-foot, 185-pound utility player. "I knew we'd be good, but to win the league with a couple games to spare and going to state as one of the favorites in the state has been pretty exciting. Hopefully we can go deep at state and make it a little better."

When the summer began, the original plan was for James to fit into a rotation of players in the outfield, a place he hadn't played since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus three summers ago. Given his inexperience at this level, James was also pegged to hit toward the back end of the lineup, starting seventh in the order before gradually climbing his way up.

"At first I didn't know, with what we thought we had coming back, that he was going to be able to make as big of an impact as he has for us," says Kensinger. "He plays hard and he's got a mean streak in him, and I like that. He has high expectations for himself, and talking to him, you wouldn't think so, but he can be pretty intense."

Usually mild-mannered and upbeat, James admits he can get a little charged up when the time is right.

"I definitely like to win and get hits and be competitive," he says. "It all depends on the situation. If the team needs to get fired up and is being lackadaisical, I can get fired up. Otherwise, I can just go with the flow."

James' versatility has been a key. He's typically started in right field, but has seen time at third base, second base and first base — along with his first pitching action since he was in middle school.

"He can play anywhere," adds Kensinger, "and what people don't know about Cody is he's faster than a lot of guys think he is."

That in itself is a testament to good genetics — his father Jerry was a speedy standout during his playing days at Linn-Benton Community College and Southern Utah — and a lot of hard work following his knee injury. James found himself back in action only seven months after surgery, albeit at first base — a move that definitely paid off for the Black Tornado this past spring.

James credits a lot of his ability to the things instilled in him and older brother Zack (22) by his grandfather Larry James, whose son still ranks third on Southern Utah's single-season record book with a .431 batting average in 1983. Jerry James passed away when Cody was only 1, and the boys' grandfather played a big role in teaching them the game of baseball while their mother Debbie took care of the rest.

"He was always out there helping me," James says of his grandfather. "He's probably the reason why my swing is what it is today, and where I am today as a baseball player."

And, given the circumstances, that's a pretty good place to be.

"Being on a team with everyone that's so good, where everyone can hit and field at a high caliber, is kinda special," he says. "I'm just enjoying being a part of all this."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com