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Mustangs sweep GP

GRANTS PASS — Known for his dynamic defense and steady offense, Zack Earle dialed it up a notch Tuesday night for the Medford Mustangs.

Looking to close out the Grants Pass Nuggets in a best-of-three Area 4 baseball playoff, Earle came through time and again for the Mustangs in a 12-5 triumph at Agnew-Lytle Field.

The biggest change is how Earle was able to make it happen.

Predominantly a gap hitter during his standout days at North Medford High, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound shortstop showed off some newfound muscle — much to the chagrin of the Grants Pass faithful.

Earle got the Mustangs off to a hot start with a two-run home run to deep left-center field off GP starter Ryan Hayden in the first inning, added RBI singles in the fifth and seventh and then closed his night just as it began with another two-run homer.

All told, Earle finished 4-for-5 with two runs scored and a season-high six RBIs.

"Yesterday I really struggled at the plate going 0-for-4 so I went and did some extra (batting practice) before the game today and got ready to go for sure," said Earle. "I finally felt confident at the plate and obviously it showed. When I got that first home run, I just kept going from there."

Earle's onslaught, as well as solid outings from Max Gordon and Matt Maurer, allowed Medford (36-8) to sweep the series against GP. The Mustangs beat the Nuggets 11-0 in seven innings Monday.

Gordon was 3-for-6 with two runs and one RBI to extend his hitting streak to 14 games, while Maurer was 3-for-4 with three runs and one RBI.

The Mustangs will now get a few days to rest and prepare for the American Legion AAA state tournament, which begins July 29 in Corvallis.

Earle's homers were his fifth and sixth of the summer, and appear to be a continuing product of a breakout campaign this past spring at Oregon Tech. With the Owls, Earle belted nine homers to rank second on the team and hit .323 with 43 RBIs.

"Something changed in my swing and I have more pop this year, obviously," he said, adding that he's certainly not looking to go yard each time he steps into the box. "I was just looking to come through for the team in those situations and give us some extra runs for the later innings."

Mustangs manager Sandee Kensinger said a key to Earle's success throughout the summer has been his ability to take the same attitude to each at-bat and inning on defense, regardless of his successes or failures.

"He's a solid kid and a real good player," said Kensinger.

And certainly capable of even greater numbers when it comes to round-trippers.

"He's got that great trajectory," Kensinger added, "he'd have at least five or six more home runs if he played in a park like this or in Kiger (Stadium) instead of our park (Harry & David Field)."

Earle's first-inning homer followed a leadoff single by Gordon and staked Medford to a 2-0 lead, but the Mustangs weren't quite done against Hayden. Garrett Tygerson was hit by a pitch and Ian Kendall singled to maintain momentum. After Griff Boyd sent a liner to center field, Maurer laced a liner to right field that scored Tygerson and Kendall was able to score as well when the ball got past Craig Kathol.

With Hayden largely ineffective, Nuggets manager Travis Osborne was forced to make a move and turned to Jordan Decker to quiet the surge. The left-hander did the job by getting Isaac Rolie to hit a pop up to first base, but Hayden failed to secure the ball and the fifth run of the inning scored on the error. Hayden got a second chance moments later on another pop-up and made the catch.

"We wanted to get out and fast and not let up, so that was big for us," Kensinger said of scoring five runs and batting the entire lineup.

Hayden was able to gain a measure of redemption in the bottom of the first, taking the first pitch he saw from Mustangs starter Neil Emerson over the center field wall for a two-out, two-run homer. Zach Morgan had previously reached base on a throwing error by second baseman Chris Bradshaw after he ranged right for a grounder.

Decker held Medford to a total of two hits through the second and third innings, giving the Nuggets a chance to sneak back into the game.

Grants Pass tallied one run in the third after inning-opening singles by Keith Suits and Ryan Miller and an RBI groundout by Brandon Drury.

Medford finally got something going against Decker in the fourth after Gordon and Bradshaw earned one-out singles. Earle then walked to load the bases and another walk to Tygerson made the score 6-3. Decker was able to escape further damage, however, by inducing Kendall into a double play to end the inning.

The Mustangs turned up the pressure again in the fifth as Decker surrounded a pair of strikeouts with a pair of walks to Maurer and Lewis Sebrell. Gordon followed with an RBI single and Bradshaw was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Earle, who lined an RBI single into left field to make it 8-3.

Gordon's typical all-out effort, however, came back to bite Medford as he was thrown out at home plate for the final out instead of allowing Tygerson to come to bat with the bases still loaded.

The Mustangs managed to load the bases again in the seventh with no outs but managed only one run — off Earle's blooper over second base — in the frame. Hayden Wolfe singled to lead off the inning and put an end to Decker's day, with the Phoenix High standout ending with a solid line of 5 1/3 innings pitched with eight strikeouts, seven hits and four runs allowed in emergency duty.

"He did a good job against us, I'll give him credit," said Kensinger of Decker, whom the Mustangs released earlier this summer so he could get more playing time with GP. "He's got a nice breaking pitch and he was locating it and giving some of our better hitters fits tonight."

Kathol, a Crater High graduate, came on in relief and walked Sebrell before inducing a grounder to Hayden at first that the Hidden Valley star simply couldn't get out of his glove in time to make a play. Kathol then got Bradshaw to strike out for the first out in the inning, but Earle picked up his teammate with a single to make it 9-3. Kathol struck out Tygerson and got Kendall to ground out to second to escape further damage.

After a one-out double by Maurer in the eighth, Colin Sowers made his only appearance at the plate count by blasting a triple to the right-center fence for a 10-3 lead.

The Nuggets scored in the eighth on an RBI double by Hayden, but Earle's towering homer in the ninth to left-center answered right back. GP loaded the bases against Maurer in a closing role but only managed a sacrifice fly from Morgan before having their season come to an end on a fly ball out to Kendall.

Medford Mustangs 500 120 112 — 12 15 5

Grants Pass Nuggets 201 000 011 — 5 6 4

Emerson, Shipley (7), Maurer (9) and L. Sebrell, Sowers (7); Hayden, Decker (1), Kathol (7) and Sager. W — Emerson (7-0). L — Hayden. 2B — M: Maurer, GP: Hayden, Kathol. 3B — M: Sowers. HR — M: Earle 2 (6); GP: Hayden.

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

Zack Earle trots around the bases after hitting a first-inning homer Tuesday. - Photo by Jerry Clarkson