The celebration may have been a year late for the Medford Rogues but it was just as sweet as they could have possibly imagined.
Players bolted from the dugout in celebration after Taylor Frost nailed down a 7-2 clinching win in the Great West League Championship Series against the Chico Heat to set off a dogpile next to the pitcher’s mound at Harry & David Field.
Hugs and high fives were aplenty to glorify a moment of redemption for the Rogues, who were the regular-season champions for the second straight year in the GWL but finally got to see their own coaching staff get doused with water in a post-game frenzy instead of watching Chico do it in this same setting in 2016.
“Chico’s kind of had our number, especially hearing from guys last year that have played for the Rogues,” said Rogues catcher Alex Isola. “This one was kind of personal and we just really wanted to come out and really smack them right away.”
Isola’s home run Friday helped Medford (44-21) open the best-of-three championship series with a 5-3 win at Chico (40-25), and he was 3-for-4 with one run and two RBIs in the series-clinching 7-2 win Saturday in front of a crowd of 1,733.
But Saturday wasn’t about one player or one key play.
As the Rogues proved all season, it was all about the unifying strength that can happen when you tow the line for all your brothers standing alongside you.
“I’m speechless,” said Rogues manager Josh Hogan moments before his Gatorade bath. “Just the way they compete and the way they play for each other and the brotherhood … it’s real, it’s not just talk or what coaches say. This is real and they love each other and they played for each other the whole summer. Especially this championship series, they weren’t going to let anything stop them. It gives me chills just watching them play.”
After seeing his team win both road games last year to steal the inaugural GWL trophy, Heat manager Fred Ludwig had nothing but praise for his Medford counterparts.
“I just really knew it was going to be a good matchup,” said Ludwig. “Josh and his staff do an outstanding job. We were hoping to get a win here and there but they earned it. They kept us off-balance and we were a bit overmatched tonight.”
“I think we’re going to see each other again next year, there’s no doubt about it,” he added, “and I’m going to welcome it because it’s just a good matchup all the way around.”
Saturday’s title game was a year in the making for Rogues starting pitcher Dylan Pearce, who was outstanding in the deciding game one year ago but still was saddled with a 1-0 loss. This time around, Pearce was his typical bulldog self and scattered five hits with six strikeouts and three walks in six-plus innings of work. He made one mistake in leaving a ball up for a solo home run by Marcus Wilhite in the second inning but otherwise was on point in a game he was chomping at the bit to pitch in ever since last year was complete.
“We wanted redemption for Dylan from last year,” said Hogan. “He’s our guy on the mound and he wanted it. We knew he was going to compete his butt off out there and how locked in he was going to be and everybody had confidence behind him.”
Ludwig also knew what he and his team were facing in the former Crater High standout who is bound for Oregon State in the fall, and the Heat just couldn’t find a groove against the right-hander.
“He threw well tonight,” said Ludwig. “He kept us really off-balance tonight with our hitters. He did a good job inside and outside of the zone. I’m going to tip my hat to him, he did a great job today.”
Medford finally broke through in the bottom of the fourth inning after loading the bases. Connor Lowrie was hit by a pitch, Braden Stutzman reached safely when his sacrifice bunt was misplayed by starting pitcher Justin Watland and Jayden Hanna dropped down a perfect bunt for a single. Clay Valenzuela-Reece followed with a sacrifice fly to center field to tie the game at 1-all.
Chico again took the lead in the top of the fifth when Cole Lemmel singled and, after a wild pitch, scored on a flare to right field by Bailey Zimmer that saw Jake Hellweg do a costly double-clutch on his throw home to just miss out on a play at the plate.
But as has been the case for a Medford team that was the only one to reach the 40-win plateau in the GWL — similar to 2016 — the Rogues showed their true character by battling right back to take momentum for good in the series-clincher.
“It speaks volumes to our coaches preaching to never give up,” said Isola. “We really bought into that and we really just truly believe in each other. We could be down 10-0 and we’ll believe to the last out that we have a chance. That’s kind of the key to life, no matter when you’re down you’ve just got to always fight back. You’ve just got to respond and that’s kind of been the key for us all summer.”
Consecutive singles by Johnny DeLaCruz and Isola sparked the crowd and Hellweg gave them some more to cheer about with a game-tying RBI single to left field. Chico then made a move to the bullpen for Ryan Sanchez but Dante Gutierrez greeted him with an RBI groundout and Lowrie followed with a shot up the middle for a 4-2 advantage.
Valenzuela-Reece successfully pulled off a double steal with Davis Delorefice for another Rogues run in the bottom of the sixth.
D.J. Wilson, Scotty Wright and Frost came on in relief of Pearce in a parade of scoreless innings pitched from the seventh inning to the end, and Isola provided a nice cushion with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth for the bullpen.
DeLaCruz finished 3-for-4 with two runs to Hellweg was 2-for-5 with one run and one RBI to help power the offense with Isola, with Valenzuela-Reece, Delorefice, Stutzman and Isola each coming up with jaw-dropping defensive efforts in support of the pitching staff.
“We’ve always taken pride in our defense and we’ve got some big-time guys that step up in the moment,” said Isola. “The thing was for this series, everyone was ready for the moment. We prepared all summer and it was just another game for us.”
Another game that none involved will soon forget.
Watland, Sanchez (5), Wright (6), Dragmire (6) and Johns; Pearce, Wilson (7), Wright (8), Frost (9) and Isola. W — Pearce (6-0). L — Watland (3-5). 2B — C: Lemmel; M: Isola. HR — C: Wilhite (6).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry