Jon Gassman was almost a hero — twice — for North Medford in a Class 6A baseball state play-in game Wednesday.
The junior outfielder hit a three-run triple to rally the Black Tornado from a 4-2 deficit to a 5-4 fifth-inning lead against the 31st-seeded Southridge Skyhawks of Beaverton.
Then with North down to its last out trailing 6-5, Gassman scorched a ball heading for the outfield gap, but Southridge left fielder Blake Sheppard made a superb running catch to end the game at North Medford High.
The 6-5 loss to the Metro League squad ended the season for the Black Tornado (11-15). Southridge (9-15), which finished seventh in its nine-team league, moves on to play at second-seeded Clackamas on Monday.
Despite getting knocked out of the postseason, North Medford veteran coach Brett Wolfe called the 2017 campaign one of his most satisfying. Wolfe has won two state championships, lost once in the finals and has advanced to the postseason every year but twice in his 23 years as head coach.
“It’s not about wins and losses for me,” said Wolfe, whose team entered the game 29th in the OSAA rankings. “It’s working with great kids. They showed a lot of heart.”
That North did against Southridge, who jumped on Black Tornado starter Wyatt Baptiste for four runs in the first two innings.
Junior outfielder Joseph Ball did the damage for the Skyhawks early. The No. 2 hitter in the order smoked a 3-2 pitch in the right-centerfield alley for an RBI triple and scored on Kyle Temme’s sacrifice fly to give Southridge a 2-0 first-inning lead.
After the Black Tornado got one run back in the bottom of the inning on Ryan Sandoval’s RBI double, Ball belted a two-run double down the right-field line to put the Skyhawks up 4-1.
“(Ball) has been struggling this year,” said Southridge first-year coach Kyle Chamberlain. “He’s got his confidence back the last couple of weeks so I moved him up in the batting order. I knew he had this type of game in him.”
Southridge junior pitcher Will Wheeler kept the Black Tornado off balance with his curveball through four innings on four hits and seven strikeouts.
Then North demonstrated its grit in the fifth.
Justin Geyer opened the frame on a four-pitch walk and Brandon King singled. On Kasey Buchanan’s ground ball, Southridge first baseman Ryan Lambert threw the ball into centerfield trying to cut down King at second and Geyer scored. After Sandoval walked to load the bases, Gassman connected on a triple that rolled to the fence in right field to put North in front 5-4.
“I just went up and did what I always do and swung as hard as I can,” said Gassman, “and knocked an opposite-field triple.”
With Gassman on third and one out, Wolfe tried a play he rarely uses — the squeeze bunt — and it backfired when Gassman got picked off third because of a pitchout with Baptiste at the plate.
“I went against the odds of what I do,” said Wolfe, “but Wyatt is a really good bunter. They guessed right and made a good call.”
Southridge got the tying and winning runs in the sixth when Sheppard came through with a clutch two-run single up the middle.
But North had one more gasp.
An error by Skyhawks’ shortstop Connor Fajardo on King’s routine grounder to open the seventh put the tying run on. King went to second on Buchanan’s sacrifice and reached third on a ground out by Sandoval.
Then Gassman connected on a ball that looked like it might tie the game. But Sheppard, who had dropped a fly for a two-base error earlier, sprinted to his left and reached high to pull down Gassman’s drive.
“I knew it was in the gap,” explained Sheppard. “I ran as fast I I could. I just put my glove up and felt the ball in my glove. It was sweet.”
Wolfe gave praise to the Southridge leftfielder.
“It’s a game of inches,” said Wolfe, “but that kid made a great catch. Otherwise it would tie the game with the winning run in scoring position. The difference in the ballgame was they had timely hitting and we didn’t do it enough.”
But for Wolfe the season was not a failure: ”I had as much fun with this group as any I’ve had. They had perseverance. To me, it’s really rewarding.”
Wheeler, Staley (6) and Boling; Baptiste, Sandoval (6) and Geyer. W — Wheeler. L — Baptiste. 2B — S: Ball. 3B — S: Ball; NM: Gassman