Mustangs swing for No. 7
A year ago, the Medford Mustangs wrapped up their postseason with a celebration.
But even that wasn’t the same as the American Legion AAA boys have grown accustomed to in recent years.
On Saturday, the Mustangs will begin their quest to take the first steps toward a hopeful dogpile once again, only this time it would come with a banner.
The Area 4 champion Mustangs (41-12) open state tournament play Saturday night at Legion Field in Roseburg seeking their seventh straight state championship.
The bid for No. 7 was delayed last year when the coronavirus pandemic forced the American Legion to cancel all postseason play, although Medford was able to put forth a 33-17 season that concluded in a title at the inaugural West Coast Invitational Baseball Classic.
“It’s kind of nice to get back into playing for something,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben, in his 11th season at the helm. “I think these boys are excited. Last summer was good, we got a lot of games in and got a lot of reps, but it’s a whole different level of intensity when you’re getting ready for a state tournament and getting the opportunity to go play some other teams out of state potentially if you win a state tournament.”
Mayben and company certainly know the feeling. Along with six straight state titles, the Mustangs have won 17 overall and earned their 14th state title in 29 years in 2019.
Extending that streak, however, will not come easy.
“I think this is one of the most wide-open tournaments I’ve seen in a long time,” said Mayben. “It’s one of the best, with pitching staffs across the board, that I’ve seen in a while, at least in our area. Those first two or three days, I’d imagine, are going to be low-scoring games with really good pitchers. It will be interesting to see how that all works out.”
The first day of action involves a shift in tournament protocol, with four play-in games set Friday to replace the previous best-of-three Super Regionals and complement automatic qualifiers like Medford.
Friday’s play-in games involve Portland Eastside (28-17) against the Springfield Timbers (20-15); Eugene Challengers (42-11) versus Newport Mid-Coast Dungies (11-14); Sherwood Lobos against the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen (17-14); and the Stayton Post 58 Crushers (18-20-1) versus the Beaverton Sockeyes (23-7).
Medford begins state tournament play at 7 p.m. Saturday against the winner of the Stayton-Beaverton matchup.
Other automatic qualifiers include host Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s (28-15), the Area 1 champion Salem Withnell Dodgers (16-16) and Area 2 champion Hillsboro Barbers (30-9).
The double-elimination state tournament runs through Wednesday.
Medford enters the event in better standing than things appeared they would be mid-Sunday.
A seventh-inning rally, clinched on a walk-off hit by Gavin Schmidt, and an ensuing shutout effort on the mound by the North Medford product allowed the Mustangs to escape a potential five-game losing streak heading into state.
“It gave these guys the confidence that they needed going forward,” said Mayben of the regular season-ending sweep of Roseburg. “Confidence is huge. We’ve had different levels of teams ourselves going into the state tournament, and it’s all about who’s hot right now. Hopefully we can get in there and turn it up even another notch for ourselves and get back to hitting the baseball like we have been before.”
Helping matters will be a healthier Medford squad than it has enjoyed most of the summer on the offensive and defensive ends, with a return to full duty for Eli Westrick and Zac Ankeny.
“We really haven’t had an opportunity to have our best lineup on the field but probably 8-10 games all summer,” said Mayben. “I think we’re finally healthy so it will be nice to get our full lineup on the field.”
Westrick leads the Mustangs with a .488 batting average to go with 45 runs and 52 RBIs, and Tanner Douglas (.438) has been a steady force with 64 runs and 60 RBIs.
“Tanner is one of the best left-handed spray hitters I’ve seen,” said Mayben. “He goes line to line really well.”
Aiden Horsley, one of the youngest Mustangs, capitalized while Ankeny was out at shortstop and has solidified his own spot in the lineup with an impressive .421 batting average, 36 runs and 41 RBIs coming off his sophomore year at North Medford.
“Aiden’s stepped up tremendously,” said Mayben. “Entering the season he was kind of that bubble guy fighting for a position but the way he’s gone out and swung the bat, he’s earned himself a spot. He’s been a big help to our lineup in creating the best nine we can get. It’s been awesome to see him step up.”
The same could be said for catcher Jeremiah Robbins (.345), who has helped turn over a lineup that includes spark plugs Cody Borraggine (.395, 53 runs, 38 RBIs), Darin Marsh (.356, 58 runs, 28 RBIs) and Jace Miller (.342, 34 runs, 52 RBIs).
Medford’s pitching depth has taken a hit with Westrick (4-0, 0.83 ERA) battling elbow problems but there’s a chance he could see some action at state, along with AJ Balsiger (3-1, three saves, 1.37 ERA). Balsiger suffered a slight bone fracture in his pitching hand on a comebacker two weeks ago against Springfield.
Schmidt (6-1, 2.11 ERA) and Trey Newmann (7-0, 3.52 ERA) have been two of the more consistent pitchers lately for Medford, while Douglas (7-1, 2.50 ERA) can be a difference-maker from the left side.
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