Everything appeared to be working the Medford Mustangs’ way during Wednesday’s opening game of the American Legion AAA Northwest Regionals, until it wasn’t.
Medford carried a 3-1 lead with Yakima Valley down to its final out in the Washington champion’s final at-bat before the wheels ultimately came off for the Oregon champions in a stunning 4-3 loss at Ogren Park in Missoula, Montana.
“That was one of the tougher ones I’ve ever experienced given the situation and the whole circumstance of everything,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. “Being in a good position with one out away from putting it away, that was tough.”
Medford (41-11) has little time to recover from the shocking turn of events, facing an elimination game at 9 a.m. Pacific Thursday against the loser of Wednesday’s matchup between Waipahu of Hawaii or Montana champion Billings.
“All we can do is move forward,” added Mayben.
After keeping Pepsi Pak (46-12) from Selah, Washington, at bay for most of the contest behind strong starting pitching from Ethan Whitney, reliever Joe Johnson allowed a leadoff single in the top of the seventh inning to Jack Van De Brake before strikeout out Devon Garner and inducing a fielder’s choice comebacker to get the second out at second base.
Then everything turned sour for the Mustangs, with Tanner Cline keeping Yakima Valley alive with a two-out single and an ensuing grounder by Payton Andreas loaded the bases when it glanced off the glove of recently inserted first baseman Jacob Melton for an error to load the bases.
“The kid hit it hard and it was a hard one-hopper literally right at him and it glanced off his glove a little bit and glanced to his left,” said Mayben of the fielding error.
With barely any time to get refocused, Melton then had the next batter — Carson Vick — send another shot his way, with this one ricocheting off his glove to the right and into right field to allow two tying runs to score on a second straight error.
“It’s one of those things where he makes those plays a lot more often than he doesn’t,” said Mayben. “He doesn’t get a lot of reps over there but he’s good enough to do it. He’s made plays, we just didn’t that time around.”
It’s worth noting that Melton has been suffering from the flu and his status to even take the field Wednesday was in question until gametime after vomiting several times leading up to the game. Typically Medford’s center fielder, Melton instead was inserted into the lineup in the designated hitter spot.
Still seizing the moment with runners at the corners, Pepsi Pak’s Anthony Tatro slipped a bloop single barely out of the range of shortstop Zac Ankeny to plate the go-ahead run and put the Washington squad ahead for the only time in the game.
Rickey Boortz then came on in relief of Johnson, striking out Brady Helgeson to stop the run.
In the bottom of the seventh, Wyatt Baptiste supplied a one-out single — his third hit of the day — to give his team a tying chance and pinch-hitter Dylan Marsh followed with a single down the left field line. Unfortunately on a pitch in the dirt to Ankeny that didn’t get as far away from catcher Garner than he may have hoped, Baptiste took a chance and tried to reach third base and was thrown out easily. Ankeny then popped up to the shortstop to end the game and send Medford into the elimination bracket.
Continuing a recent lull, Medford stranded 12 baserunners in the regional opener, six in scoring position.
After the game, Mayben said there wasn’t much to say to his players.
“We talked about what we’re capable of doing and we’ve shown what we’re capable of doing through most of the year,” he said. “We’ve just got to believe that we can turn it back on again. We put up a good mark this year, we’ve won a lot of baseball games and we’ve had a pretty consistent year on the mound, we just need to get our hitting back with runners in scoring position.”
“We had a 3-1 lead but we left a lot of guys on base in scoring position,” added the eighth-year manager. “You’ve got to score those runs when you have the opportunity to and we didn’t come through in those situations today. And you’ve got to be able to finish games out when you get to this point, and we didn’t do either of those.”
Medford built a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Baptiste singled, moved to second on a groundout and scored on one of Yakima Valley’s three errors.
After Whitney got out of a fifth-inning jam by inducing an inning-ending groundout to third baseman Jack Thompson, his teammates answered with another run. Melton reached on a third strike passed ball and quickly moved to third base on a double into the left field corner by Thompson. Jon-o Gassman then came through with an RBI single up the middle to make it 2-0.
Washington got a run back in the sixth inning but the Mustangs again had a response in the bottom half of the inning when Ankeny supplied a leadoff single and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Melton to make it 3-1.
Unfortunately, Medford couldn’t extend that advantage and that proved costly in the final frame.
Whitney was able to get the first out of every inning but the sixth, and shortly afterward he was pulled from the mound after reaching his 80-pitch limit necessary to keep him eligible for potential Sunday action. In 5? innings, the right-hander allowed seven hits and one run with two strikeouts and one walk.
“He did great, he did everything we asked him to and everything we needed him to — and even a little bit more,” said Mayben of Whitney. “It’s too bad he didn’t get to come away with the win on that because he deserves to get the win on that.”
Lublin, Froula (6) and Garner; Whitney, Johnson (6), Boortz (7) and Geyer. W — Froula. L — Johnson. 2B — YV: Cline; M: J. Thompson.