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Mustangs win, face Grants Pass for state championship

KEIZER — After two straight days of knocking around the competition at the Oregon AAA American Legion state tournament, Medford got thrown a change-up Saturday afternoon.

In a game that stayed tight throughout, the Mustangs had to throw out the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning to finish a 4-3 win over the DeMarini Dirtbags of Dallas at Volcanoes Stadium. Medford had taken a 4-1 lead into the final frame, only to see Dallas rally to come up with a pair of runs on a walk, two hits and an error that set up the game-ending play.

The Mustangs (32-17) now play Area 4 rival Grants Pass (26-18) on Sunday for the state championship. The teams will meet at noon; a Medford win in that game would clinch the Mustangs' third straight state title, while a Nuggets victory would force a winner-take-all game at 3 p.m. Grants Pass beat the Withnell Dodgers of Salem 6-5 in an elimination game Saturday.

Saturday’s victory came after the Mustangs had blown out Corvallis and Salem in 10-run wins the two previous days. A competitive contest may be just what Medford needed, and the Mustangs could afford it in a situation that wasn’t a must-win for them.

“That is kind of nice,” Medford manager Nate Mayben said. “Those ballgames are fun because it keeps our kids in the game, it keeps them focused, makes them realize, ‘Hey, we’ve got to work hard and not just sit back and relax.’ I think that’s a great game for us heading into tomorrow.”

Though the Mustangs didn’t have to win Saturday, the victory knocked out one of their top challengers for the program’s 14th state championship. Dallas (34-8) had the best overall record of any team in the tournament field.

“They’re a heck of a ballclub,” said Mayben. “They play the game hard. They compete and they have pitching, and they can hit and play D. We knew it was going to be a dogfight coming in. We wanted to get rid of them today — we did not want to possibly see them tomorrow, because they come back with their (number) one or two tomorrow on the mound, and they’re a tough team.”

The Dirtbags’ last-ditch rally pushed across one run to make it 4-2 and had runners at first and second with two out when Zach Rhoads chopped a ball up the third-base line; third baseman Josh Berman knocked the ball down and threw to first trying for a game-ending out but sailed it over first baseman Nick Sanderson’s head. Sanderson chased down the ball, dug it away from the fence and fired to catcher Greyson Wolff to nail Anthony Zellner trying to score from first base; pinch runner Luke McBeth had already crossed the plate on the play to make it 4-3.

For Berman — who had helped Medford build the 4-1 lead with a single, a double, a triple, a run scored and two RBIs — seeing the “out” signal at the plate took a weight off his shoulders.

“I just let it go, and as soon as I threw it over his head I thought for sure it was going to be a dead ball and they were going to score two — I thought I blew it, for sure,” Berman said. “But that was a great play by our first baseman.

“I was honestly just praying, hoping, he’d come out and make a good throw. I didn’t think it was going to happen, to be honest; I thought the kid was going to score, but when I saw that ball being thrown I had full confidence that our catcher was going to pick it. I had a little joy of relief, that’s for sure.”

The play was close and Dallas’ coaches contested the call; the umpires conferred for a few moments before affirming the decision and Medford had its sixth straight postseason win.

The Mustangs led from start to finish, taking the lead in the top of the first when Tate Cowden led off with an infield single, was sacrificed to second by Wolff and scored on Berman’s triple to right-center that just eluded the center fielder’s up-stretched glove. Medford held onto that 1-0 lead through five innings as right-hander Ethan Whitney continuously found ways to work out of trouble.

The Dirtbags had at least one base runner in every inning against Whitney. After a leadoff walk and a wild pitch in the first inning, Mayben made an early trip to the mound.

“I just walked out there and told him, ‘Hey, listen, you did a heck of a job all spring with your high school team, and there’s a reason why you’re on this team. You just need to believe it and go out and pitch and have fun,’” Mayben said. “Because it seemed like he was stressing — but I don’t blame him. It’s a tough situation.”

Dallas stranded runners in scoring position in the second and fourth innings, then left the bases loaded in the fifth.

“I just focused on throwing strikes and trusted my defense behind me in getting the job done,” Whitney said.

In five-plus innings, he allowed one run on six hits, walked three and struck out three. He also picked off a base runner.

Medford extended its lead to 2-0 in the top of the sixth when Berman doubled to left-center field and scored on Jordan Ragan’s two-out single through the right side.

Dallas cut it to 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth after Whitney allowed a single and a double to start the inning. Will Weaver came in and limited the Dirtbags to one run, getting some help when a line drive to center fielder Cole Carder was turned into an inning-ending double play as his throw caught a Dallas base runner off second.

Weaver went the rest of the way to earn the save, going four innings and allowing one earned run on three hits and one walk.

Ragan was the only other Mustang besides Berman with more than one hit, going 2-for-5 and driving in a run.

Now Medford faces Grants Pass, with whom it split six games this summer, including a sweep in Grants Pass to finish the regular season. Mayben sees a simple solution to change that trend.

“Just play the game the right way: just catch the ball, throw the ball, throw strikes, put the ball in play,” Mayben said. “The last time we played them, they did a good job of doing that and we didn’t do a very good job of doing that … We’re a different team than we were the last time we played them, I believe. We seem to be hitting on all cylinders with everything, so hopefully that continues.”

Medford;100;001;200;—;4;10;2

Dallas;000;001;002;—;3;9;1

Whitney, Weaver (6) and Wolff; Lester, Johnson (7), Alarcon (9) and Zellner. W – Whitney. L – Lester. Sv – Weaver. 2B – M: Berman; D: Amador. 3B – M: Berman; D: Amador.