It may be a new year but it’s the same ol’ mentality for the Medford Mustangs, who were state champions for a fourth straight time one year ago and have designs this summer on extending what already is an Oregon record for consecutive titles.
“I hope the result is the same, that’s always our goal,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben on Monday. “We always think that we have a chance just because we draw from some good schools. If we continue to work hard and compete and continue to grind it out like we do every summer, we’ll at least give ourselves a chance.”
Medford, which has won 12 of the last 27 state titles and 15 overall, has already gotten off to a solid start, going 3-1 this past weekend in a season-opening road trip to California. The Mustangs will play their home opener at 7 p.m. tonight against the Grants Pass Nuggets in a nonleague, nine-inning contest at Harry & David Field.
Returning to the fold this summer will be seven players in all, including four from the college ranks in pitchers Ethan Whitney and Wyatt Baptiste, first baseman Joe Johnson and catcher Justin Geyer.
“I think they’re all pretty key college guys and will help us out a lot this summer,” said Mayben, who enters his eighth season at the helm.
Last year, Whitney and Baptiste provided valuable arms in the starting rotation while Johnson split his time as a relief pitcher and first baseman. Geyer was slated to handle catching duties but required shoulder surgery and missed most of the summer.
Whitney went 5-2 with four saves and a 1.85 ERA last summer, sporting a nice 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53 innings. He spent this past season as a redshirt at Linn-Benton Community College.
Baptiste provided a welcome surprise with last year’s success on the mound, going 5-0 with a 3.13 ERA. After redshirting at Chemeketa Community College as an outfielder, Mayben said Baptiste will play in the field a little more this summer but will also be asked to chip in on the mound.
Johnson finished with a .326 batting average last year with 32 runs and 35 RBIs and is already off to a fast clip, going 7-for-15 with nine runs and four RBIs in the leadoff spot. He had a 3-0 record and 3.92 ERA last summer but won’t be asked to pitch until later in the summer after not throwing much at Vanguard University, where he hit .270 with 27 runs and 18 RBIs as a freshman.
Geyer expects to be chomping at the bit to play, and a year away at Treasure Valley Community College likely only made him more ready to compete once he returns to the Rogue Valley.
Center fielder Jacob Melton, third baseman Dylan Marsh and second baseman Brennen Watts also return, with Melton doing the most damage a year ago as Medford’s second-leading hitter with a .442 batting average to go with 56 runs, 37 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
“Obviously he’s going to be phenomenal for us in center field,” said Mayben of Melton. “He has all the tools that you look for in a player, from speed to arm strength and knowledge of the game. He has a plus-arm and good pop off the bat, he’s going to do a lot of special things for us.”
Melton, who was 4-0 with two saves and 3.00 ERA while pitching last year, also could fill the closer role for Medford.
Marsh (.341, 21 runs, 16 RBIs) provided a defensive key at third base last year, while Watts will move from a utility role to a regular spot at second base and hit .340 in limited duty in 2017.
Newcomer Zac Ankeny, fresh off his sophomore season at South Medford High, will step into the shortstop’s role and his range in the field should be key to the Mustangs’ success this summer.
Brothers Jack and Bennett Thompson will also play a factor in myriad ways. Both will handle catching duties with Geyer and also fit in wherever they can as utility players. Jack Thompson, a senior, has considerable experience at catcher and third base but also can play the outfield and pitch, while the freshman Bennett Thompson is an exciting up-and-comer for Mayben who was simply “too good to pass up” with his versatility.
Another infield piece of the puzzle will be Eagle Point senior Andrew Schreiner, who Mayben said made an instant impression with his character and work ethic to make the team.
Mayben did have to make some tough roster decisions when it came to a handful of pitchers due to a need for more fielders.
“I’m really excited about what we’ve got on the mound because I think we’ve got a ton of depth,” said Mayben. “That’s what made it kind of hard; we ended up letting a few good pitchers go just because that wasn’t really an area of need right now.”
Joining Whitney at the top of the rotation will likely be South Medford right-handers Brandon Letendre and Ricky Boortz and North Medford’s Ryan Sandoval.
Sandoval also will see time in the outfield with North Medford’s Jon-o Gassman. Another newcomer, Brady Buchanan, has outfield ability but likely is going to fit in at designated hitter. With Baptiste and the Thompson brothers also viable alternatives, playing time really could come down to who is wielding the hottest bat at the time.
“We’re excited about our outfield but it is probably the biggest question mark we have going into the season just because we’re waiting to see how all the pieces fall into place,” said Mayben.
As for the Area 4 race, Mayben said he anticipates another stiff challenge from Eugene, with Willamette Valley and Roseburg capable of big moves with their talent and Grants Pass posing as a viable title threat given its roster possibilities that include Crater’s athletes. Klamath Falls again provides an unknown quality but with talent in the area, and the Falcons are automatically in the state tournament as its host.
Mustangs single-game tickets at Harry & David Field are $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors. Season tickets cost $25.
For more info, go to www.ballcharts.com/medfordmustangs
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry