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Aaron Yost/Roseburg News-ReviewMedford Mustangs player Brady Buchanan greets Jacob Melton after Melton scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the sixth inning against Beaverton on Saturday in the first game of the American Legion AAA baseball state tournament at Legion Field. The Mustangs — winners of a record four straight state titles — rallied for a 2-1 victory.

Mustangs rally in state opener

The Medford Mustangs had a plan entering Saturday’s opening game of the American Legion AAA state tournament, and nothing was going to deter them from that course of action.

The plan largely involved limiting pitch counts in order to keep pitchers eligible as the tournament plays out, and was built on manager Nate Mayben’s confidence that his players could get the job done.

That confidence was rewarded in every way possible Saturday at Legion Field in Roseburg as Medford took its first step toward a potential fifth straight state championship with a 2-1 triumph over Beaverton Post 124.

“It was a close one, it was a nail-biter,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. “But it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-run game or 10-run game, you’ve just got to move on. You’ve got to give yourself a chance to play the next day.”

Medford (38-9) advances to face the Mid-Valley Southpaws at 4 p.m. Sunday in the double-elimination event. Mid-Valley beat Salem-Withnell, 5-2, in other first-day action.

Beaverton (29-7) had scored its lone unearned run in the third inning and starting pitcher Kellen O’Connor kept Medford at bay until a sixth-inning surge carried the day for the Mustangs.

Brennen Watts led off the sixth inning by reaching on an error when shortstop Conner Fajardo’s throw to first base was too high. Jacob Melton followed with a two-strike single to right field to keep things going, and cleanup hitter Jack Thompson put down a sacrifice bunt to advance each runner into scoring position.

With Medford’s offensive woes throughout the game against O’Connor, who kept the team off balance despite not being overpowering, Mayben mulled over a few options with Justin Geyer at the plate as the count grew in Geyer’s favor.

All faith in Geyer to put the ball in play paid off moments later as the North Medford High product ripped a liner into the right-center field gap for a go-ahead, two-run double.

“We hadn’t been swinging it real well so I was begging for at least one there to tie the game up,” said Mayben, “but he did a great job of driving an outside fastball to the gap and that was huge.”

What also loomed large is how Medford’s plan of attack on the mound paid off, with Melton tossing five strong innings before giving way to Joe Johnson, who fired two scoreless frames to earn the win. Melton allowed only one hit and one unearned run with six strikeouts and two walks, while Johnson didn’t allow a hit or a walk with two strikeouts.

Mayben’s plan was to keep Melton under 80 pitches so he could return in the tournament — anything more and he wouldn’t be available in the next four days. Keeping Johnson at 30 pitches or less also maintained his immediate eligibility. Melton wound up coming out at 77 pitches and Johnson needed only 25 in his stint.

“We stuck with the plan and obviously it worked out for us,” said Mayben. “Sometimes it doesn’t work that way when you have a plan like that but it did today.”

“We had the pitching plan in place but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh man, I hope we get away with things,’” he added. “By no means is that the case. Melton, Joe, (Ethan) Whitney and (Ricky) Boortz have been lights out all year on the mound for us. We have a lot of confidence in them all. I didn’t hesitate at all when we had to pull the trigger with Melton just because I know those guys are all good and they’re going to compete and they all have good stuff.”

Mayben was also quick to praise the left-handed O’Connor, who struck out six and walked two behind a quality slider and some help from a Mustangs team that hadn’t seen game competition since last Sunday.

“Kind of what I was afraid was going to happen I think happened at the plate for us,” said Mayben. “I’ve got to give the Beaverton pitcher credit, he did a great job of keeping us off balance. He was a crafty guy and we just weren’t on time and swung at some bad pitches to help him out a bit. Hopefully tomorrow our rhythm can be back and our timing but it was a tough game offensively.”

Besides Medford’s two hits in the sixth inning, the only other hit came in the fifth inning on a two-out single by Bennett Thompson.

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O’Connor and Lovings; Melton, Johnson (6) and B. Thompson. W — Johnson (7-1). L — O’Connor. 2B — M: Geyer.

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

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