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Mustangs cap season on a championship note

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GRANTS PASS — There wasn’t your typical dogpile ending to a Medford Mustangs summer season, but Sunday did offer a championship title and an opportunity for Medford’s players, coaches and fans alike to walk away with a smile.

Putting a bow on an independent season strung together in June by Mustangs manager Nate Mayben and several of his Area 4 American Legion cohorts, Medford did what it does best when it comes to season-ending tournaments.

A clutch 10-4 win over the Grants Pass RiverDawgs in Sunday’s earlier semifinals in the inaugural West Coast Invitational Baseball Classic set the stage for a potential championship, and the Mustangs were on top of their game to close things out on a high note with a 5-1 triumph over the Humboldt Eagles.

It was the first tournament loss for the Eureka, California, squad, which went 3-0 in pool play and edged Northwest Diamond of Portland, 4-3, in their semifinal. Humboldt is set to play the Medford Rogues on Tuesday.

“We just had fun playing the games today,” said Mustangs catcher Bennett Thompson of Sunday’s mindset. “You can’t take anything for granted, that’s what this summer has shown us. Just the opportunity to be out playing baseball and playing for something against a really good team over there, for us it was a really good victory.”

“Obviously it’s not the state championship,” he added, “but we’ll take what we can get. We’re still stoked about it and it leaves a good taste in your mouth to end the year.”

At this time last year, the Mustangs clinched their sixth straight state championship (14th in 29 years) and 17th overall. American Legion Baseball canceled regular season and postseason play in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Mustangs (33-17) had gone 4-3 against Humboldt (36-11) this season, playing five of those games one week ago, so everyone knew they would have to be at their best in the finale, and they most certainly were.

Steven Ledendecker scattered six hits with three walks and three strikeouts in a complete-game effort on the mound, Medford turned a pair of double plays and the offense capitalized when the moment arrived with a five-run fifth inning to end on a high note.

“I felt good just knowing that this was going to be the last game of the summer,” said Ledendecker, who entered the game 4-3 with a 6.28 ERA. “I just wanted to leave it all out on the field, and with all my guys behind me making plays and Bennett calling a great game behind the plate, I was able to do that.”

Shortstop Zac Ankeny served notice that Medford was on its toes defensively with a nice sliding stop and relay to first baseman Jack Thompson for the final out of the first inning. Ankeny and second baseman Quinton Rumrey were sharp all day in fielding grounders and turning the aforementioned double plays, adding two more in the semifinals against Grants Pass.

“I think we turned more double plays today than we did all summer,” Mayben said with a laugh, “so we made up for our lost double plays that we should’ve turned during the summer today. Those help you out so much. Obviously you can’t rely on them but when you get them in bunches like we did today, it’s just going to be your day a little bit.”

Ledendecker was also key in setting up those opportunities with his ability to keep the Eagles guessing at the plate.

“In my opinion, that was probably his best outing,” said Thompson. “Just the way he was able to hit his spots with his fastball and his curveball all day, and he could do it in any count, that was the big thing. It didn’t matter what count, he had the confidence to throw his curveball in there for a strike and it just kept Humboldt off balance the whole day. He only had a few strikeouts but the amount of missed barrels he had was great, and he avoided the walks.”

Still, it was scoreless into the bottom of the fifth as Humboldt starter Cameron Saso proved equally as daunting to hit against.

Medford finally turned the tide in that frame, however, thanks to a sharp leadoff single by Jack Thompson and consecutive efforts by the Marsh brothers, Dylan and Darin, that loaded the bases. Dylan Marsh was hit in the helmet by an errant pitch, and Darin Marsh put down a perfect sacrifice bunt that allowed him to safely beat out Saso’s throw to first base.

With momentum on Medford’s side, Rumrey showed ultimate patience in working the count and not chasing anything that could potentially hinder his team’s chances. That approach proved successful as Rumrey drew a walk to plate the first run of the game.

Jon-o Gassman then reached out and poked an RBI single into the outfield to make it 2-0, and you could sense the momentum rising in the Mustang dugout.

“Jon-o came up huge in that spot, and that’s kind of what we do,” said Mayben. “Things get a little contagious with us at times and we start scoring runs in bunches. That’s kind of been what we’ve done all summer.”

Akin to what he’s also done all summer, Bennett Thompson followed with a two-run single that was highly effective but maybe not as pretty as others this season when he smashed a ball into the grass only a few feet in front of him but saw it carry over drawn-in third baseman Landon Gomes and into left field for a 4-0 lead.

“It worked out with the infield in but it was obviously not what I wanted to do,” said the Class of 2021 Oregon commit. “But in that situation, you’re happy to score the runs. Internally I wasn’t the most happy with that hit but that’s what the team needed to score some runs.”

Mayben saw it as a thing of beauty.

“That was kind of the knockout punch right there,” Mayben said of Thompson’s effort. “You bounce a ball over the third baseman’s head with the bases loaded and now you’re down by four, that just kind of makes your head drop a little bit when it happens to you.”

Lane Thrapp came on in relief of Saso after that and got one out before Ankeny tacked on an RBI single to center field to cap the much-appreciated five-run outburst.

“I had confidence in my guys the whole time,” said Ledendecker. “That’s a great pitcher up on the mound for them too — (Saso’s) got good stuff — but I had confidence in our guys that we were going to eventually put something together.”

Keenan Morris lifted a solo home run over the right field fence with one out in the sixth inning to give Humboldt some hope, but Medford didn’t give in and held off the remaining Eagles’ advances.

“I’m just proud of the guys,” said Mayben. “These last two days of the tournament were really good.”

Earlier Sunday, Medford took control of its semifinal against Grants Pass with an RBI double by Gassman and two-run double by Bennett Thompson in the third inning to build an eventual 5-0 advantage. Gassman later added a two-run double in the fourth inning, finishing 2-for-3 with two runs and three RBIs.

Darin Marsh also smacked a solo home run in the sixth inning for Medford.

AJ Balsiger got the win with six strong innings, allowing 13 hits with one walk and three strikeouts. Despite finding himself under pressure throughout, Balsiger and his defense found a way to hold back the RiverDawgs, who stranded 11 runners in scoring position compared to two by the Mustangs.

Medford and Grants Pass served as tournament hosts in the eight-team event.

Grants Pass RiverDawgs 0000301—4151

Medford Mustangs014212x—10101

Tobin, B. Kissel (4) and Robbins; Balsiger, Costanti (7) and B. Thompson. W — Balsiger (4-2). L — Tobin. 2B — GP: Anhorn; M: Ankeny, Gassman 2, B. Thompson. HR — M: Da. Marsh (2).


Humboldt Eagles0000010—160

Medford Mustangs000050x—561

Saso, Thrapp (5) and Ayala; Ledendecker and B. Thompson. W — Ledendecker (4-4). L — Saso. HR — H: Morris.

Have a local story? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMustangs{ } - Bennett Thompson gets a base hit during the 5th inning of the championship game.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ } - Mustangs Quinton Rumrey tags out Eagles Landon Gomes trying to steel 2nd base.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune -{ } Mustangs Steve Ledendecker delivers in the 2nd inning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune -{ } Mustangs Zac Ankeny turns a double play over Eagles Corbin Eichin during the championship game Sunday in Grants Pass.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Mustangs Steve Ledendecker delivers in the 2nd inning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Mustangs Darin Marsh drops a bunt during the championship game.