Mustangs look to rebound
By Medford Mustangs standards, which admittedly are higher than most, last summer was less than fulfilling for the American Legion baseball team.
The Mustangs again played in the state tournament, but fell short of an eighth straight appearance in the championship final to finish 28-19 overall.
With 12 returning players and some key additions, Medford manager Nate Mayben hopes his squad is better prepared to challenge for its 12th state championship this time around.
"Every year we put together a team with that capability," said Mayben, "it's just going to matter how these guys gel and what these guys want to do. Talent-wise, we have a team that can compete on paper at a high level. We have high expectations in this program and our goal is a state championship and I think that's realistic."
To do so, however, the Mustangs will have to navigate a challenging Area 4 schedule that includes the two-time defending champion Grants Pass Nuggets as well as the Eugene Challengers, Roseburg Dr. Stewart's and, for the first time, the Springfield Titans. Mayben said the Klamath Falls Falcons registered for a AAA Legion team within the last week but with schedules already complete for the season, it's doubtful that they will be in the mix for a second straight summer.
"Grants Pass will be tough again," said Mayben of the league favorites. "From what I understand they have a lot of college guys coming back and they're also taking players from a Crater team that had a great season and a lot of talent."
The Mustangs expect to counter with a team full of current and former standouts from North Medford, South Medford, Ashland, Cascade Christian and Yreka high schools. With a dozen of the 18 players on this year's roster having previously donned the Mustangs uniform, Mayben inherits his first veteran crew since he took over for Sandee Kensinger four years ago.
"I think we're a lot more mature, not only physically but mentally and baseball-wise," said Mayben, whose Cascade Christian baseball team lost 7-2 to Glide in last Friday's Class 3A state championship. "I think we've got a good, savvy baseball group."
Medford's strength stands to rest with a deep and talented pitching staff that was led last summer by Ashland's Carter Glick and includes returning hurlers Cody Hoff, Isaiah Luzny, David Crofton and Micah Brown.
"We've got plenty of pitchers on staff and plenty of really solid pitchers at that," said Mayben. "Last year we kinda lived on a couple guys who did a really good job and stepped up for us but this year if you look at the roster, you're going to recognize a lot of names and guys who are coming off really good seasons."
Glick sported a 5-2 record and 2.20 ERA for a Mustang rotation that boasted an overall ERA of 2.85 last summer. The right-hander, who also plays catcher, was a pleasant surprise in 2013 and will again be looked toward for quality innings.
Hoff attended Feather River Junior College this past year but didn't register any statistics for the Golden Eagles. He was 5-2 with a 2.54 ERA last year.
Luzny and Crofton each sported 4-3 records last summer, with the left-handed Luzny producing a 2.76 ERA and the right-handed Crofton with a 3.17 ERA. Brown served as the Mustangs' closer a year ago, gaining six saves with a 2.20 ERA but likely won't pitch much this summer to rest his arm and allow him to focus on playing shortstop.
Medford gained a top-end starter with the return of North Medford standout Colton Westfall, who has had limited stints with the Mustangs the past two summers. Westfall was 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA in four games last year after going 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA in 2012.
"We're excited to have Westfall back on the mound, no question," said Mayben, noting the right-hander will get another week or so of rest after pitching North Medford to the Class 6A state title last Saturday.
Mayben is also legitimately excited about adding the services of left-hander Jordan Ragan and right-handers Caleb Newman and Cody Coggins to the mix, as well as getting more innings from returner Steen Fredrickson. The Ashland product has seen limited time on the mound the past two summers but was a key pitcher for the Grizzlies this past spring.
"It's yet to be determined who's going to be starters and who's in relief," said Mayben. "For the most part they're all going to get a lot of innings either way so whatever role the pitchers take, they're going to see a lot of action."
After one of the worst defensive seasons in Mustangs history a year ago, any extra boost the pitchers can give to quiet opponents will be a welcomed sight. Medford had a team fielding average of .940 last year, with an uncustomary 98 errors in 47 games. That per-game average was the highest in program history, with the overall number errors falling short of being the worst by one after the 1997 team had 99 errors in 61 games.
"Our defense was pretty horrible last year," added Mayben, whose team is 2-0 entering today's opening game of the Willamette Classic in Salem. "Hopefully we can fix that problem."
The Mustangs plan to flip last year's middle infield and put Brown at shortstop and Taylor Raff at second base. Raff spent this past year at second base for Southwestern Oregon Community College and Brown was at shortstop for the Black Tornado, hopefully leading to a more natural transition than having the alternated look the Mustangs used a year ago.
Third base stands to be in good hands with Ashland's Eric Carlson and North Medford's Josh Berman available, with Carlson also capable of playing first base with Crofton, Coggins and Luzny. Berman and Carlson could also see time at shortstop in the early going as Brown recovers from a sore arm.
"We're going to mix it around a little bit," said Mayben. "I think we've got some athletic guys there that can play multiple positions."
In the outfield, the Mustangs plan to use a rotation of returners Jared Evans and Bryce Rogan with newcomers Christian Gillis and Jimmy Sporer.
"I really like our speed in the outfield," said Mayben. "All those guys can really cover some ground."
Behind the plate, Austin Zavala returns with Glick to give Medford a solid anchor to the defense and a safety net for the pitching staff.
Offensively, the Mustangs hit .331 as a team last summer and were led by Evans, who was added to the roster a couple weeks into the season and went on to hit .376. Frederickson hit .392 in 51 at-bats, with regulars Carlson and Crofton each batting .361. Raff led the team with 39 runs scored and hit .337, while Brown is the main run-producer returning after he drove in 27 runs with a .321 batting average.
Zavala (.320) and Luzny (.319) were also productive bats last summer, and Mayben is looking for his entire team to take it up another level this year.
"This year we're looking for more guys to get on base and use our speed a little more," he said.
Should it all come together, Mayben said he looks forward to making another run at not only a conference title but a state championship as well. This year's state tournament will be in Grants Pass, meaning the Nuggets have an automatic berth already in their pocket, while the regionals will be in Eugene.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Mayben said of the summer season. "Every year we have a great group of kids and it's a lot of fun, and that's really what I remember about the summers anyway. Of course we want to win, but along the way we just want to enjoy the moment and have fun playing baseball."
The Mustangs' home opener — and Area 4 opener — is a doubleheader against Springfield beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Harry & David Field.
For more info, including a complete game schedule, visit the Medford Mustangs website at www.ballcharts.com/medfordmustangs
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry