Mustangs vie for third straight state title
It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing this summer for the Medford Mustangs but none of that matters now, according to sixth-year manager Nate Mayben.
Whatever growing pains the young Mustangs have endured thus far have all led up to this moment as Medford opens play Wednesday morning in search of a third straight American Legion AAA state championship and 14th overall.
The Mustangs (28-19), who returned only six players from last year, kick off the state tournament at 9 a.m. Wednesday against the Portland Barbers at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday.
“We’re just going to go up and take it game by game and hopefully find ourselves there on Sunday, that’s all we can ask for,” said Mayben.
“I think we’re a funny team,” he added. “They’ll look great at times and not so great at other times, sometimes even in the same game. It’s kind of helter skelter with them but I think if we can get some consistency out of them and play to their abilities on a consistent basis, they’ll be tough.”
In the Portland Barbers, Medford opens with a somewhat familiar foe even though the teams have not met this summer. Last year, the Mustangs rallied to topple the Barbers, 8-6, on the third day of the state tournament in a battle of unbeatens and also beat them in the championship game the previous year.
“They have a lot of new guys and we obviously have a lot of new guys, too, so I don’t know if we’re going to know each other as well as we could,” said Mayben of the Area 2 champions. “They’re going to be solid, I know that, and they’re going to have good players and they’re going to play well.”
In Wednesday’s other matchups, the DeMarini Dirtbags play the Eugene Challengers at noon, Gresham Advanced Metal plays the Corvallis Marketmen at 4 p.m. and the Grants Pass Nuggets take on the host Salem Withnell Dodgers at 7 p.m.
Eugene was the Area 4 champion, with Grants Pass finishing second and Medford taking third. Last year, the Mustangs won consecutive state titles for the third time in program history.
Corvallis enters the tournament as a likely favorite given its 31-8 record and balanced roster, but Mayben noted that DeMarini may have the deepest pitching staff in the state and last year’s runner-up Eugene is loaded for another deep run after negotiating a challenging Area 4 schedule.
“Those three teams are probably the favorites,” said Mayben, “but we hope to be right there.”
Of note for the Mustangs is the fact that they have increased their level of play throughout the season, raising the team batting average to .312 while also lowering the team ERA to 4.21 despite battling numerous health and injury issues.
“We’re getting better and hopefully playing our best baseball now,” said Mayben.
Medford has been given a boost in the last few weeks with the addition of Jordan Ragan, who was a key component of last year’s team winning its fifth Northwest Regional title and coming within two outs of playing for the national championship.
In 14 games, Ragan is batting .500 with 10 runs and 10 RBIs and even though is 0-2 with a 4.96 ERA, the left-hander is coming off a year where he earned the Bob Feller Award for the most strikeouts in regional and World Series play with 23 in 23⅓ innings.
“Getting Ragan back has been huge,” said Mayben. “I wasn’t expecting him to necessarily help out offensively but he’s just been huge for us in the middle of our lineup. I’m not real worried about Ragan on the mound, I think he’s going to be just fine. He’ll keep us in the game and always gives us a chance.”
Will Weaver has been another key two-way contributor, with the Cascade Christian High product leading the team with his 7-1 record to go with a 4.98 ERA. Weaver is also batting .351 with seven runs and seven RBIs.
Josh Berman has been slowed lately by illness but leads the Medford regulars with a .378 batting average to go with 37 runs and is tied with Nick Sanderson for first in RBIs (38). Berman also boasts a 5-0 record and 1.17 ERA.
Sanderson is batting .352 with 38 RBIs and 33 runs and is 3-3 with a 3.60 ERA, while Cole Carder is batting .338 with 42 runs and 34 RBIs and Tate Cowden is hitting .331 with a team-high 53 runs and 18 RBIs.
Mayben said he’s been pleasantly surprised with the production of first-year catcher Christian Mahoney (.326, 15 runs, nine RBIs) and left fielder Joe Johnson (.299, 16 runs, 13 RBIs). Johnson is also 3-1 with a 4.65 ERA.
The Mustangs took a hit earlier this summer with the loss of Aaron Hutchinson on the mound. The right-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force to the rotation and posted a 1-0 record and 0.49 ERA in two starts before having to step away due to a slightly torn rotator cuff. Hutchinson also contributes at the plate (.286, nine runs, 11 RBIs).
James Turnbull (.298, 20 runs, 21 RBIs), Greyson Wolff (.269, 21 runs, 18 RBIs) and Kasey Buchanan (18 runs, 16 RBIs) have also given Medford a boost in what has been a pretty versatile lineup.
Wolff (3-3, 4.50 ERA), Berry Hunt (2-3, 4.57 ERA) and Ethan Whitney (4-3, 5.83 ERA) also give Mayben capable options on the mound.
“If these guys can stay focused pitch to pitch, from the first pitch to the last pitch, I think they’re pretty tough to beat,” said Mayben. “But as soon as they lose that focus and desire, that’s when we’re not good enough. We can’t roll through moments, this team has to be on top of it and be mentally focused at all times.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry