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Medford players celebrate during a recent game. The Area 4-champion Mustangs take on the Withnell Dodgers this morning to open the state tournament. - Andy Atkinson

Familiar foes await Mustangs at state

There will be an air of familiarity for the Medford Mustangs when they open the American Legion AAA state tournament today at Swede Johnson Stadium in Eugene.

The Mustangs are one of four Area 4 teams to advance to the eight-team tournament and open at 9 this morning against the Salem Withnell Dodgers, one of two nonleague foes Medford (34-10) has already played this season.

"We know what to expect, for sure, so that's nice," says first-year Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. "It's definitely calming but we're still going against a good ballclub in Withnell. For as long as I can remember they always seem to be in the state tournament and always been at the top of their league."

In their only prior meeting this season, Salem Withnell took advantage of four Medford errors and won in its final at-bat on a grounder up the middle that took a bad hop over the head of shortstop Justin Bohn. The final score was 10-9 for the June 16 game, which served as the opener for the Willamette Classic.

"It's helpful a little bit having played them before but we faced them a month and a half ago and a lot has changed, I'm sure, on their end and our end," adds Mayben.

The loss snapped a six-game winning streak to open the season by Medford, and was one of three losses suffered in the Classic and part of a streak that saw the Mustangs lose five times in seven games.

Medford has since gone 26-5 and secured what appears to be a prestigious Area 4 title given the landscape of the state tournament.

The Eugene Challengers, runner-up in Area 4, earned an automatic spot in the tourney as its host but likely would've qualified under any situation. Roseburg Dr. Stewart's and Grants Pass Nuggets, the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in Area 4, each won their super regionals to qualify for the state tourney. The lone league team not to advance was the Klamath Falls Falcons, and they squared off against Salem Withnell in the final of their super regional and very easily could've made it a complete sweep for Area 4 squads.

"It's cool to see our league be represented like that because that shows that it's probably the toughest league in the state," says Mayben. "Every team's good. Klamath had a down year but they still had guys that could play baseball and almost made it (to state). It's nice to be able to represent Area 4 as the champion because that shows your worth and what you've been able to accomplish in a hard couple of months."

After Medford and Salem Withnell square off this morning, the Salem Post 9 Highwaymen face Roseburg and the matchups continue with the Portland Barbers against Grants Pass and Eugene playing the Hermiston Spuds.

Of that group, Medford has not faced the Barbers, based out of Madison High, or Hermiston. The Mustangs went 5-0 against Grants Pass, 4-0 against Roseburg, 2-2 against Eugene and 2-1 against Post 9, although the Salem club didn't really throw a main starter against Medford in a doubleheader sweep a few weeks ago. Post 9 was able to beat the Mustangs 10-9 on June 17 as part of that Willamette Classic swoon.

Mayben was uninterested in looking past his team's opening foe in Salem Withnell when posed with the question on Medford's biggest obstacle toward a potential 12th state tournament title. When pressed, however, he acknowledged that Eugene and Salem Post 9 may be the class of the field when all is said and done.

"I've gotta give Eugene its props," he says, "we played four one-run ballgames against them so they're going to be really tough. I may be biased because they're my former team but I think Post 9 has the pitching that's going to be there. They have a solid three starters and that's what you need to get through something like this."

Medford will also need to finish matters a little better than has been the case in past years. The Mustangs lost twice to Roseburg on the final day of play last year to miss out on the state title, and couldn't finish the job against Corvallis in 2009, a year in which they were already host to the regionals and didn't need the state crown to advance. Medford's last two state titles came in the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

"I think Medford's been in the state championship game seven of the last nine years and only won two of those," says Mayben. "That's something that these guys have to understand, that it's not going to be given to you. We've got to finish something this year."

Nate Namanny, who will be a senior this fall at South Medford High, will get the nod against Salem Withnell today in hopes of getting the Mustangs off to a good start. The left-hander was a hard-luck loser in the prior meetings between the team but has consistently been solid in each start this summer. He boasts a 3-1 record and 2.44 ERA, with four complete games in seven starts.

"Nate did really well against them minus the four errors behind him," says Mayben. "Nate's been there before and pitched in a state tournament before and that's obviously a big reason why we went with him. I think it'll help Nate out a lot having been there last year and hopefully that will help him stay calm in that situation."

Medford enters the state tourney with a team ERA of 3.62 and will also rely on Brady Thomas (4-1, 1.59 ERA), Travis Cash (6-2, 4.10), Gerardo Herrera (5-0, 3.23) and Michael Bradshaw (4-2, 3.28). Five different pitchers have also recorded one save this season.

"The guys we have are guys that are going to go out and for the most part throw strikes," says Mayben. "We don't have that shutout guy this year like they've had in the past, but we definitely have guys that can compete in any game."

Easing some of the tension for the pitchers has been an offense that is top-heavy in production but still potent down to the No. 9 spot in the batting order. Seth Brown paves the way in the No. 3 spot with a whopping .509 batting average to go with 66 RBIs and 64 runs scored.

Jessie Hornbrook, the No. 2 hitter, is batting .443 with 51 runs and 38 RBIs, with leadoff hitter Colin Sowers at .394 with 64 runs and 38 RBIs and cleanup hitter Cody James at .386 with 60 RBIs and 46 runs. Lucas Stone, in the fifth spot, is hitting .360 with 39 RBIs and 28 runs.

That group has hit 27 of the team's 40 home runs, with eight apiece by Brown and Sowers, who now ranks third in runs scored (197) and walks (96) and is fourth in doubles (49).

"It's always nice when you get to the top of your order and know you're going to score a couple runs, at least," says Mayben. "Those five guys mainly at the top of the order have been pretty solid all year. Obviously Hornbrook and Brown, especially, they haven't been in a slump all year and that's pretty rare. Those are some tough hitters to get through."

If anything, Mayben says his focus is more on the defensive side of things. Medford has committed an unusual amount of errors thus far, making things interesting to the very end of each game.

"Our hitting's going to be there — it has all year — and our pitching has been good," says the manager. "If we can take care of stuff defensively we should give ourselves a good chance to win. We just have not been solid day-in and day-out like we need to be."

As it stands in the bracketing, Medford will face either Grants Pass or the Portland Barbers on Thursday in the double-elimination tournament. Wednesday's winners play at 4 p.m., while the opening-day losers square off at 9 a.m. The tournament runs through Sunday, with championship games at 10 a.m. and, if necessary, 1:30 p.m.

The winner of the state tournament advances to the Northwest Regionals, set Aug. 4-8 in Billings, Mont.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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