The Medford Mustangs have no visions of repeating what they accomplished last year. Rather, the focus this summer is simply to maintain the competitive tradition of the American Legion AAA baseball program.
If the group of mostly newcomers can do that, then sixth-year Mustangs manager Nate Mayben says his team will be just fine.
“There’s a lot of new faces and a lot of young faces on this team,” says Mayben, whose squad returns only five players and a potential sixth in North Medford High product Jordan Ragan. “It’s an interesting year because it is kind of like starting over in a sense just because of all the new guys that we have. But we’re really excited about that, and we’re really excited about the guys we do have coming back.”
Last year, Medford earned its 13th state championship, fifth Northwest Regional title and came within two outs of playing for a national championship at the American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C. The Mustangs finished 45-14 overall.
Any notions of merely walking up and repeating those feats is ridiculous to Mayben.
“We don’t expect to duplicate that by any means,” says Mayben. “That was a special team and a special year and a lot of special things happened. We caught some breaks, too, to go as far as we did, and you just can’t bank on things like that to happen every year.”
“But just like any other year,” he adds, “we’ve got our eyes on another state championship and after going to California over the weekend to see the pieces we have to play with, our goal is to get better each day and compete for one again this year.”
Medford (1-3) plays at Kiger Stadium in a nonleague game against the Klamath Falls Falcons today before hosting its home opener at 7 p.m. Wednesday against the Grants Pass Nuggets in another nonleague game at Harry & David Field. The Mustangs remain home Thursday to face Klamath Falls.
Key returning players include pitchers Aaron Hutchinson (6-0, 1.37 ERA) and Will Weaver (5-3, 2.51 ERA, four saves) and the addition of Josh Berman, who was with the team in 2014 but missed the second half of 2015. Hutchinson allowed one run in six innings Saturday against the Chico Nuts, while Berman struck out 12 in six innings against the Redding Tigers on Sunday.
The rotation’s potential would be amplified if Ragan, who is currently on a 10-day contract with the Kelowna Falcons of the Great West League, returns to the fold. Ragan was 8-1 with a 1.51 ERA last year, earning the Bob Feller Award for posting the most strikeouts in the regional and World Series tournaments with 23 in three appearances (23⅓ innings). He struck out 84 in 74 innings overall to help the Mustangs post the second-best single-season team ERA in program history at 2.06.
Even without Ragan, Mayben says he’s excited about how his pitching corps will perform this summer. Left-hander Nick Sanderson of Ashland and right-hander Ethan Whitney of South Medford both have bright futures, and the Mustangs have plenty of relief options in North Medford’s Berry Hunt and Greyson Wolff, St. Mary’s hurlers Joe Johnson and Jose Perez and Phoenix’s James Turnbull.
The regular lineup stands to be a fluid one over these first few weeks as the Mustangs attempt to piece together their top group with a lot of versatility among those on the roster.
Wolff and South Medford’s Christian Mahoney are expected to anchor the catching position that got a big boost with the late turnout last year of Austin Zavala.
At first base, Sanderson and Johnson expect to be in the mix, while second baseman Tate Cowden returns (.298, 55 runs). Shortstop is the biggest question mark at the moment, but mostly because there are too many options in returner Cole Carder (.347, 34 RBIs, 36 runs), who split the role with Micah Brown last year when not in center field, and newcomers Turnbull, Perez and Hunt.
“That’s kind of the position that we’re trying to get solidified because whoever wins that spot is going to determine a lot of the other places,” says Mayben.
Berman, Hutchinson and Whitney expect to share third base depending who is on the mound that day, while Kasey Buchanan, Hunt and Johnson are options in left field and Carder has the edge on center field after a successful debut season there last year. In right field, South Medford’s Jaylin Parnell or former Cascade Christian standout Knute Thompson could get the call in an outfield brimming with prospects.
The Area 4 season begins June 20 and will include games against the Falcons, who are returning to the league this summer after a hiatus, the Nuggets, Willamette Valley Titans, Eugene Challengers and Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s.
“It’s a tough one to call this year, that’s for sure,” Mayben says of the league favorite. “ ... A lot of it is going to depend on who turns out for each team because there are a lot of good ballplayers in all these areas.”
Helping Mayben again this summer will be pitching coach Paul White and assistant coaches Kellen Hobie and Colin Sowers. White will also be taking over in his first season as general manager for Don Schneider, who stepped down last year after holding that spot since 1989.
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