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Mustangs earn third straight title

KEIZER — Late Sunday afternoon, Medford players ran off the Volcanoes Stadium diamond having just watched Grants Pass take a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Mustangs were three outs from having their season — and hopes of a third straight state title — come to an end.

“We knew we could come back from anything because that’s what we’ve done all season,” Mustang outfielder Cole Carder said. “So we came into the top of the ninth and knew we had to get the leadoff guy on.”

Medford ended up getting not only its first hitter on, it put its first five aboard and they all scored as the Mustangs rallied for a 6-2 win in the championship game of the American Legion AAA baseball state tournament. Medford (33-18) advances to the Northwest Regional, which begins Wednesday in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Grants Pass (27-19) had forced Sunday’s winner-take-all second game by beating Medford 11-6 in the day’s opening game. The Nuggets were trying for their first-ever state title while Medford won its 14th. The Mustangs’ current three-peat is their second, as they also won titles from 1991-93.

Medford manager Nate Mayben called the 2016 championship “pretty special.”

“Because the last two years we had clubs that we really did expect to win the whole thing as far as going into the season we knew — we had a really good idea what our roster was going to be and we knew we had very good chances,” Mayben said. “This year was a little different in that we only had six guys back from last year and a lot of new guys … so our expectations at the beginning of the year were to get better, and that’s what we talked to them about.”

“We took a trip down to California to start the year off and we didn’t play very well,” added Mayben. “And we said, ‘You know what, fellas? We’re going to work. We’re going to work all summer, and when it comes to the end of July we’re going to be playing our best baseball.’ And they did it.”

Two players have been on all three title teams during the current run: Jordan Ragan and Josh Berman. Sunday, Ragan pitched the complete-game win in the finale, giving up 12 hits but only two runs (one earned) while walking one and striking out eight.

But, in the space of about 20 minutes, Ragan went from possibly allowing the winning run on an error to sliding across the plate with what was the winning run. His errant throw on Jarid Norberg’s bunt let McKinnon Bennett score from second base in the bottom of the eighth; but in the top of the ninth he legged it home from second on Joe Johnson’s single to right and dove under the tag of catcher Zach Morris to put the Mustangs up 3-2.

“I was really upset when I threw that ball away,” Ragan said. “But when I slid across home I knew I was safe; he tagged me late. It was insane — I can’t even explain it, really.”

The whole inning felt a bit insane. Grants Pass had grabbed the momentum with its run and was on the verge of coming all the way back through the elimination half of the bracket after losing its first game of the tournament.

“We came in in that ninth inning and I’m just going, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Mayben said. “And they went out and executed: we got the bunts down that we needed to get down, we put the ball in play. We got the leadoff guys on — that was huge. I’ve got to give it to them, they went out and got it.”

Nick Sanderson started the inning with a ground ball up the middle that was mishandled by GP second baseman Bennett. Pinch-runner Jaylin Parnell was balked to second by the Nuggets’ Mike Hults and Grants Pass head coach Mike Reese was ejected disputing the call.

Ragan followed and hit a sharp hopper down the third base line; it got by GP third baseman Norberg for an error and there were runners at the corners for Carder. His bunt up the first base line was placed well enough to become a hit, plating Parnell to tie the game 2-2 and sending Ragan to second.

Johnson followed with a single down the right field line to score Ragan for the lead and Carder took third. Pinch-hitter James Turnbull bunted and the Nuggets couldn’t get Carder at the plate as his run made it 4-2 and Johnson advanced to second.

After an out, Tate Cowden doubled down the left field line to drive in Johnson for a 5-2 lead. That was all for Hults, and reliever Landon Leach was greeted by Christian Mahoney’s sacrifice bunt that plated Turnbull to make it 6-2.

Grants Pass got out of the inning with no more damage and Ragan — having thrown 98 pitches — went back to the mound.

“I wasn’t coming out,” Ragan said with a grin. “The adrenaline really had me going. I didn’t feel tired; I felt the best I felt all day in the ninth. It felt good.”

The Nuggets started the inning with singles by Logan Zozaya and Hults, but Ragan retired the next two hitters. Then, when second baseman Cowden fielded Bennett’s grounder and threw to Johnson at first base, the Mustangs’ third straight state title was secure.

“This one has to feel the best, honestly,” Ragan said. “This team is good; this team isn’t as good (as the previous two) but we get it done. We have more heart and drive.”

Carder was 3-for- 4 in the final game with two doubles and two runs batted in, while Cowden was 2-for- 5 with a double and an RBI as the Mustangs were outhit 12-8.

For Grants Pass, Norberg and Zozaya were both 2-for- 3 and Tyler Rund and Hults were 2-for- 4. In his 8⅓ innings, Hults allowed two earned runs on eight hits, walking none and striking out six.

Medford had taken a 1-0 lead on Carder’s two-out, run-scoring double in the sixth inning. Grants Pass tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh when, after a pop-out for the second out, the Nuggets’ baserunner at third, Dylan Morgan, alertly dashed home as some Mustangs conferred on the mound while the ball was live.

In the day’s first game, Grants Pass plated a pair of runs in the second inning and Medford was never able to catch up; it was the first time the Mustangs had trailed in the tournament. Nugget right-hander Tyler Sakraida kept the Mustangs in check as his team built a 6-1 lead through six innings; half of Medford’s six runs and half its 10 hits came after the Mustangs entered the final frame down 11-3.

GP took a 2-0 lead in the second after putting runners at first and second with one out against Mustang starter Greyson Wolff. Hults singled through the left side just out of the reach of diving shortstop Berry Hunt; the hit drove in Cody Ekwall from second, and Morgan scored all the way from first when left fielder Johnson’s throw to the plate sailed all the way to the backstop.

The Mustangs got within 2-1 in the top of the fifth inning when Carder drew a leadoff walk and eventually scored on a pair of wild pitches. The Nuggets responded with Norberg’s two-out, two-run single to center to push the lead to 4-1.

Grants Pass tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the sixth. Among the Nuggets’ three hits in the frame was Vince Zavolta’s run-scoring double.

The Mustangs made it 6-3 in the top of the seventh, getting run-scoring singles from Hunt and Mahoney. The Nuggets then scored three in the bottom of the seventh to put the game well in hand at 9-3 and added two more in the bottom of the eighth.

Wolff pitched six innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on 10 hits and one walk while striking out three. Carder and Hunt were both 2-for- 3 for the Mustangs; for the Nuggets, Morgan was 4-for- 5 and Bennett and Zozaya were both 3-for- 5.

FIRST GAME

Medford;000;010;203;—;6;10;2

Grants Pass;020;022;02x;—;11;17;1

Wolff, Buchanan (7), Turnbull (7) and Mahoney; Sakraida, Moody (8) and Hults. W — Sakraida. L — Wolff. 2B — GP: Zavolta, Rund.

SECOND GAME

Medford;000;001;005;—;6;8;3

Grants Pass;000;000;110;—;2;12;3

Ragan and Mahoney; Hults, Leach (9) and Morris, Hults (9). W — Ragan. L — Hults. 2B — M: Carder 2, Cowden.