Joe Johnson definitely could have felt better, but he would have been hard-pressed to pitch much better Thursday night in getting the Medford Mustangs off to a good start in an Area 4 doubleheader against Willamette Valley.
Johnson found out he had strep throat on Wednesday after not feeling well since Monday night, but some antibiotics in his system and the gamer mentality that led him to so much success at St. Mary’s High allowed him to carry through for a clutch effort in a 10-0 opening-game victory that lasted only six innings due to the mercy rule.
In Game 2, Johnson hit a game-tying home run — his fifth of the summer — and pitched a scoreless seventh inning for his second save in a 3-2 triumph that bumped Medford’s winning streak to eight in a row.
“We needed it from him because we’re down on pitching a little bit,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. “We needed a good effort and that was phenomenal from him, especially with strep. To come out and do that and not give them free bases, that’s how you win ballgames.”
Johnson allowed only two hits with eight strikeouts and one hit batter to move his record to 4-1 for the Mustangs (28-8, 10-2 Area 4). He never faced more than four batters in any of his innings on the mound against the Titans (13-18, 5-7) in Game 1.
“I was getting fatigued pretty easy and a little exhausted because it’s so hot,” said Johnson of Thursday’s assignment. “I was just able to pull through I guess.”
“Throughout the last couple innings I really found my zone and I was hitting (catcher Justin) Geyer’s glove pretty well,” he added. “I think I only ended up with 74 pitches so that helped having short innings so I could get back in the dugout and take a seat.”
What also helped was a big effort from cleanup hitter Jack Thompson, who put Medford’s first hit off the left field wall for one of his two doubles and finished 3-for-4 with one run and three RBIs.
“Jack did really well,” said Johnson. “That first ball he hit off the wall really got us going after the first inning we were a little shaky offensively with two strikeouts. He came out and started off the second with a bang and got us a run right there.”
Thompson had even higher hopes for his first at-bat, but an incoming wind from left field and the stingy Harry & David Field dimensions took over.
“Usually if I start off hot I’ll carry it through the game,” said Thompson, “and when I hit it I was like, ‘Oh that’s gone.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh wait, it’s Harry & David,’ so I just kept running. But it worked out all right.”
After Thompson’s leadoff double in the second inning, he advanced to third base on a passed ball before Geyer drew a walk. Jon-o Gassman’s spinning grounder up the first base line got past first baseman Trey Nelson for an error that allowed the Mustangs to strike first on the scoreboard.
An errant pickoff attempt then moved Geyer into scoring position for a sacrifice fly by Wyatt Baptiste that made it 2-0 for Medford.
The Mustangs doubled their advantage in the third inning when Thompson again came through with a two-run double down the left field line to plate Johnson and Jacob Melton, who had each drawn walks against Willamette Valley starter Zach Hart.
“That was awesome to see,” Mayben said of Thompson’s back-to-back doubles. “Jack kind of swings it well at times and then he’ll get in a little bit of a rut, but now he’s coming out of one and it’s really nice to see. It’s huge in our four-hole when he’s driving the baseball. He was a little more relaxed in the box, I think, and a little more confident so I see more good things from him in the future.”
For Thompson, it was just nice to produce again after going 0-for-4 against the Titans during Wednesday’s sweep in Eugene. The recent South Medford High graduate entered Thursday’s games batting .375 with 26 runs and 39 RBIs.
“I think today I was just seeing the ball a little better,” said Thompson. “Last night I didn’t hit very well so I felt like I was due, so I just tried to swing hard at pitches in the zone.”
It was another hard-hit ball by Thompson, a sixth-inning single, that capped a six-run frame to win in walk-off fashion.
“At that point it was nice just to not have to go back on defense,” said Thompson with a laugh.
Medford set the stage for the mercy rule by having its first five batters reach base against reliever Micah Burke and his replacement, Tristan Vidal. In that mix there was one hit batter, two walks and consecutive singles by Gassman, Baptiste and Dylan Marsh, who drove in two runs.
“We still stay patient at the plate and we draw walks so if you’re not going to throw strikes we’ll make you pay for it,” said Mayben. “That’s what I really like about this team right now, it doesn’t matter if we’re up by seven or eight or down by four, we’ll still stay patient at the plate, wait for our pitch and if they’re going to give us free bases then we’ll take them.”
Another thing to like is the stranglehold the Mustangs have on first place in the Area 4 standings. With second-place Roseburg automatically advancing to the state tournament by virtue of being the tourney host, the Mustangs carried a three-game lead on Eugene and Willamette Valley in the standings. Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s replaced Klamath Falls as host last month after a change in schedule forced the tourney to be played one week earlier, resulting in a field issue since the Klamath Falls Gems were already scheduled for Kiger Stadium.
The top three Area 4 teams, excluding Roseburg, advance to the state playoffs, with the champion earning an automatic berth to the state tournament and Nos. 2-3 playing in the Super Regionals.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really been in this position before since I’ve been where we’ve had a nice three- or four-game lead on the other teams,” said Mayben, whose program has won four straight state titles. “Roseburg’s in second place and that doesn’t really matter so that’s even nicer for us.”
In the nightcap, Melton doubled and later scored on an error in the first inning. After Willamette Valley went up 2-1 in the top of the fifth, Johnson tied it with his solo home run with two outs in the bottom half of the inning.
Medford scored the go-ahead run in unconventional fashion in the sixth when Melton’s deep fly ball to right field was dropped by Kaden Miller and landed the speedy Mustang on third base. Thompson followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-2.
Hart, Burke (3), Vidal (6) and Cross; Johnson and Geyer. W — Johnson (4-1). L — Hart. 2B — M: J. Thompson 2.
Bates and Burke; Boortz, Johnson (7) and B. Thompson. W — Boortz (6-2). L — Bates. S — Johnson (2). 2B — WV: Miller; M: Melton, Geyer. HR — M: Johnson (5).