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State of confusion: Mustangs file protest after losing state final

ROSEBURG — In an ongoing situation sure to be remembered for a while throughout the state, the Medford Mustangs had their string of consecutive American Legion AAA state championships halted at four Wednesday by the Mid-Valley Southpaws here at Legion Field.

Or did they?

Use of a potentially ineligible player by the Albany-based squad could erase the 6-2 triumph displayed on the scoreboard after the Mustangs lodged a protest with state and national Legion officials following the game.

No ruling had been made as of press time Wednesday but one likely needs to happen in the immediate future since Oregon’s champion must be in Missoula, Montana, for the regional tournament that runs Aug. 8-12. State commissioner Ronnie Long and national commissioner Steve McLeod would be the deciding parties.

“I doubt we’ll hear anything until tomorrow morning,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben well after the last out had been recorded Wednesday.

At root of the issue was the presence of recent Crescent Valley graduate Briley Knight in the Mid-Valley lineup on Day 5 of the tournament after he had not played with the team all week — or really much at all this summer — after participating in the collegiate wood-bat West Coast League as a member of the Corvallis Knights.

The Utah-bound Knight was on the Southpaws roster when they submitted it in June, as all teams are required to do, but he also had played for the Corvallis Knights in three of the previous four days — going a combined 5-for-11 with two runs and four RBIs — leading up to Wednesday’s state final. The Knights had an off day Monday.

On page 41 of the American Legion rulebook, under the heading of dual player eligibility, there is a “point of emphasis” area that states: “Once department championship tournament play has begun, the department based chairman cannot grant permission to participate in other baseball events, baseball tournaments, exhibition games, showcases or combines. Any player missing any game of an American Legion national tournament because he participated in another baseball event, exhibition event, showcase or combine shall be ineligible for postseason tournament play.”

“The integrity of the game is at stake,” said Mustangs general manager Paul White of the protest. “We can’t take anything away from them by any means, and we had our opportunities, but the integrity of the game, that is not what American Legion’s about.”

With tournament rosters set and pitch counts clearly tracked by officials not affiliated with either team, the addition of any player in the final hour certainly seems to fall under the category of an unfair advantage.

Knight’s presence in the leadoff batter spot and as the championship game starting pitcher also was unusual given that he attended Crescent Valley, which had three of its players on the Southpaws roster and not that of the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen (which had seven). As of Wednesday night, there was some question on whether Knight had attended a Corvallis Marketmen tryout — as is the typical process — and if he received a signed letter of release to play for Mid-Valley at all.

“There’s all sorts of things going on right now,” added Mayben.

For his part, Mid-Valley manager Troy Babbitt said Knight’s eligibility was a non-issue.

“This has been cleared since we did our rosters with (state Legion officials),” he said when asked about it after the game. “These roster spots are all submitted at a certain time and that was all taken care of back when we had to turn in our rosters in June.”

When pressed further about the late add — Knight’s name wasn’t in the state program and had to be written into the lineup card utilized this summer — Babbitt added: “That’s Ron’s job to take care of that. We took care of all that stuff and we got them everything that they asked us to give them.”

The one caveat to that, however, is that Long and company did not know Knight had been playing with the Corvallis Knights as recently as Tuesday night when he was the starting catcher. In all, Knight has played in 44 games for the WCL club this summer, batting .229 with 18 runs and 21 RBIs. He has one save in three pitching appearances with a 3.00 ERA against his college-level peers.

“From what I understand, when Mid-Valley asked if he was eligible to play, (state Legion officials) never asked or thought to ask I guess, or think about, whether he was actually playing for Corvallis in the last four days, which he has,” said Mayben. “The official rule is once postseason starts you cannot dual participate, it makes you ineligible. But when our state commissioner Ronnie Long called nationals, he did not tell nationals that the Knight kid had played during the playoffs because he did not know that at the time. All nationals asked was, ‘Is he on their roster and did you let him dual participate,’ but that only covers the regular season. Ronnie Long told him, ‘Yes, I approved him to dual participate and he signed the roster so the nationals told him, ‘OK then he’s eligible.’ They did not tell nationals that he had played for Corvallis.”

The postseason aspect is the sticking point here, among others, but time will tell if it matters when the final ruling is made.

Knight’s lineup status certainly gave a Mid-Valley team that had lost 12-0 in six innings to Medford on Sunday a huge boost, especially given the number of pitchers the Southpaws had utilized to get to the championship game.

“He’s a good player and anytime you get a spark like that it’s going to help your club,” said Babbitt, whose program was seeking its first state title since 1954. “We were already sparking (coming off a 4-3 elimination game win over Corvallis earlier Wednesday) but that definitely lit us up a little bit more, for sure.”

Knight allowed three hits and one walk in four scoreless innings with four strikeouts, and reached safely in all three of his plate appearances — scoring twice from the leadoff spot — before exiting the game and the ballpark in the bottom of the fourth inning. He was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the fourth and remained in the game to score but Babbitt said concern over arm soreness forced him to leave.

“He got hit and if you saw him go down to first base his arm just went dead,” said Babbitt. “He couldn’t lift his arm. He came back in and was wanting to try to throw but his father wanted to get him to the doctor and they thought to have that looked at right now was the best thing for him.”

Mayben and company did not know Knight was going to play Wednesday until they were handed the lineup card just prior to the opening pitch. Dumbfounded by the late addition, they didn’t have time to adjust.

“He hasn’t been all tournament and didn’t play the last game (we played them) so why would we expect him to be in there?” said Mayben directly after the contest.

As for his players and the affect it had on them?

“They knew who he was, they knew where he was from and they know that he was playing with the Corvallis Knights and all of that kind of stuff but I think they were ready,” he added. “I think they were ready to go out and compete and go win it besides the fact. Right now it is what it is, we’ve got some kids that are hurting over there and a group of 15 kids that went hard from Day 1 together all the way through, so I feel for them.”

Mid-Valley won the coin toss and was the home team and scored twice in the bottom of the first inning after Medford left Brennen Watts stranded at third base in its first at-bat. Knight had a leadoff single that glanced off the glove of shortstop Zac Ankeny as he retreated back into left-center and, after a walk, the bases soon were loaded against Mustangs starter Jacob Melton when a grounder down the third-base line by Taylor Holder (also of Crescent Valley) was backhanded by Jack Thompson but unable to do more on the play.

A sacrifice fly and error produced the game’s first runs but Ankeny was able to start an inning-ending double play from his knees to limit the damage.

The Southpaws went up 5-0 in the fourth after Melton hit the first two batters and allowed RBI singles by Holder and Adam Rappe, with a wild pitch plating the other run. Again, Medford limited the damage with a 1-2-3 double play finished off by a nice dig at first base by Joe Johnson and another comebacker to Melton that he leaped high for before relaying to Johnson.

The Mustangs greeted Mid-Valley reliever Kevin Crowell with consecutive singles to lead off the fifth inning by Ankeny and Bennett Thompson before Johnson walked to load the bases. A fielder’s choice by Watts brought home a run and created a pitching change to Cade Perrizo, who gave up an immediate sacrifice fly RBI by Melton before ultimately escaping a bases-loaded situation of his own.

Mid-Valley added to its 5-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth with an RBI by Perrizo on a sacrifice fly after Caleb Beach walked to start the inning against reliever Ryan Sandoval and moved to third on a double by Jayce Lien, who earned a complete-game pitching victory over Corvallis earlier and was inserted into the leadoff spot for Knight.

“I think the thing that really hurt us this game,” Mayben said beyond his team’s four errors, “out of their six runs, four of them were put on by either a walk or hit by pitch, and that’s going to hurt.”

“We had some opportunities,” he added. “Our Achilles’ heel this tournament was leaving guys on base and in scoring position. We left nine in scoring position yesterday and I don’t know how many we left in scoring position today but it was probably pretty close to about the same amount. We had the right guys up in some key spots and it just didn’t happen for us today.”

Despite the overall turmoil, Mayben heaped praise on Knight’s effectiveness throughout his stint.

“The guy on the mound, he was good,” said Mayben of the right-hander. “He was the best we’ve seen all summer. He had a phenomenal changeup working down in the zone and we swung over the top of quite a few of those, but I thought we did a good job of battling against him. But when you get down 2-0 in a seven-inning game, that kind of shortens things up a lot. I think we may have pressed a little bit.”

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Melton, Sandoval (5), Buchanan (6) and B. Thompson, Geyer (5); Knight, Crowell (5), Perrizo (5) and Cyrus. W — Knight (1-0). L — Melton (5-1). 2B — MV: Lien.

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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