With one week remaining in the regular season, the clock is ticking for the Medford Mustangs to begin dialing it up in hopes of another long run in the American Legion AAA playoffs.
As good as Medford’s overall record may be at 26-7-1, all involved realize things could be even better for a reasonably veteran bunch seeking to secure a potential fourth straight state championship.
“At this point it’s just the little things that we know we should be doing and we need to work on,” said Mustangs shortstop/pitcher Berry Hunt of the stretch run. “Our record is our record, and it’s really good, but you see little things while you’re out here playing that we need to clean up and stuff like that, and if we can do that we’ll be right where we need to be.”
Medford actually is in much better position than one year ago, when the Mustangs needed a late surge to lift them to the No. 3 seed out of Area 4 and got hot to win their third straight state title and 14th in program history.
Medford, at 11-3, owned a one-game lead in the Area 4 standings over Grants Pass (18-12, 10-4 Area 4) entering Wednesday, when the Nuggets were set to play a doubleheader with third-place Eugene (15-15, 7-5). Willamette Valley (14-13, 8-8), Roseburg (11-18, 5-9) and Klamath Falls (7-24, 1-13) round out the league, and the Falcons have already secured a state tournament spot as the host team.
“It’s crazy right now because I think there’s a lot of things that can still happen,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben of the tight Area 4 race. “It will be interesting to see where everyone ends up landing, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The Area 4 regular season champion automatically advances to the state tourney, while the runner-up will host a best-of-three regional July 21-22 against the No. 3 team from Area 2 in Portland. The No. 3 team from Area 4 will host a regional against the No. 3 team from Area 3 in the Salem area and the fourth-place team in Area 4 hits the road for a regional at the No. seed from Area 2.
Before the Mustangs can begin charting out their playoff course, there are still three Area 4 doubleheaders to deal with in the coming days.
“It’s easy to look forward to what’s to come,” said Mustangs pitcher/designated hitter Nick Sanderson, “but we really need to focus on game to game and making sure that we don’t let this lead slip away.”
The stretch run begins Friday when Medford plays a doubleheader at Eugene and then moves over to play a twin bill at Willamette Valley on Saturday. Those games likely will determine the Mustangs’ fortunes, followed by a nonleague doubleheader against Chico on Sunday and a regular season-ending trip to Klamath Falls on Tuesday.
“Friday and Saturday is huge,” said Mayben. “We can either really help ourselves or really hurt ourselves this Friday and Saturday, we’ll see where we come out at the end of the weekend.”
Where Medford has been solid has been in crunch time conditions, with the Mustangs scoring walk-off wins over Roseburg in both games Tuesday to go with a host of confidence-building comebacks throughout the summer.
Jacob Melton, Hunt and Sanderson have been the top two-way players thus far for the Mustangs, with Hunt posting a team-best .479 batting average to go with a 4-2 record and 3.16 ERA on the mound with one save entering Wednesday. Melton is batting .423 with a 3-0 record and 2.22 ERA and one save, while Sanderson is batting .359 with a 3-2 record and 5.20 ERA.
With 22 RBIs apiece, Melton and Hunt trail only Joe Johnson (.360, 23 RBIs), while Melton’s 34 runs scored are tops on the squad.
Third-year Mustangs Tate Cowden (.308, 26 runs, 20 RBIs) and Cole Carder (.394, 31 runs, 19 RBIs) have done well to help set the tone with returner James Turnbull (.344, 20 runs, 18 RBIs), who has stepped up to handle the catcher duties despite his shortstop background.
Returning outfielder Kasey Buchanan has also come on strong of late and is batting .348 with 18 runs and 13 RBIs, while newcomer Dylan Marsh continues to fare well at third base while also batting .338 with 16 runs and 13 RBIs.
Summer pitching is always a key and Medford has reshuffled the deck to promising results with the movement of Ethan Whitney to a closer’s role. In that spot, he has racked up three saves to go with a 3.03 ERA and nabbed both wins Tuesday to improve to 4-1 overall.
Wyatt Baptiste (4-0, 2.39 ERA) has provided a lift to the starting rotation, while Coldin Shopp (3-0, 2.84 ERA) has provided key mid-game relief pitching.
Where the Mustangs could benefit from is more efficient work by its pitching staff, with 130 walks and 27 hit batters in 33 games, and cutting down on fielding and throwing errors that become more pivotal in the playoffs.
“We’ve just got to work on defense and cut down the errors,” said Hunt, “and as pitchers we need to focus on throwing strikes. We’re good mechanically but we’ve just got to really bear down and focus, that’s what it’s really coming down to.”
Efficient pitching takes on a premium now that there are pitch-count rules in place forcing mandatory rest that could see your tournament starter not be able to pitch again should they eclipse the 75-pitch mark.
Being able to get an automatic berth into the state tournament with a league title would help a team set up its pitching rotation, but given the struggles by Klamath Falls this season (potential state tourney opener for Area 4 runner-up) and a historic lack of depth from Area 2 (regional foe for runner-up), not clinching the league wouldn’t be the worst thing either.
“Obviously we’re going to play to win, that’s what you do,” said Mayben, “but our No. 2 seed doesn’t have a bad draw either so hopefully we can get one of those two spots.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry