By Kris Henry
The only thing better than making history is making some more, and that’s exactly what the Medford Mustangs are hoping for as they open the American Legion AAA state tournament at Legion Field in Roseburg Saturday morning.
Last year, Medford became the first Legion AAA program to secure four straight state titles in Oregon history, and adding another championship would only extend the Mustangs’ chances for going down as the most decorated summer franchise of all time.
“It will be fun to see what these guys can do,” said eighth-year Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. “Obviously it takes a little bit of luck sometimes to win these things so we’ll see if we get that on our side.”
Medford has won 12 of the last 27 state championships and 15 overall to already stake its claim among the Legion AAA elite. Championship listings show Portland winning six straight state titles from 1943-48 and four straight from 1935-38 — the only area to win more than three in a row — but those victories were not earned by one program. Instead, four different Portland teams won in the most recent stretch and three different ones prevailed in the mid-1930s.
The Mustangs (37-9), repeat Area 4 champions, obviously enter weekend play with a target on their back, but that doesn’t seem to deter the squad.
“It doesn’t really change our approach,” said Mustangs first baseman/pitcher Joe Johnson, “it’s been the same the past three years since I’ve been here. We’re all just trying to come out and give our best. There’s a lot of good teams so anything can happen, we’re just really trying to outwork everyone.”
Medford will get its first chance at 10 a.m. Saturday against a newcomer to the scene in Beaverton Post 124 (29-6), which finished second in Area 2 and advanced to state by beating the Klamath Falls Falcons in the best-of-three Super Regionals.
“I think this state tournament is going to be really competitive,” said Mayben. “I think everyone that we face has a pretty good No. 1 and 2 so those first two days at the tournament are going to be really competitive. I think there can be some upsets and some teams that aren’t expected to do as well are going to give themselves a chance with their pitching.”
A tournament change that could hold big ramifications is the move nationwide from nine-inning games at each state tournament to only seven innings.
“Top-end pitching is definitely going to be the key this year with those seven-inning games,” added Mayben. “In the past I feel like we’ve always had an advantage because we’ve always had a deeper pitching staff, which won’t come into play as much this year with the seven-inning games. But I think our top four guys can compete with anybody.”
Medford returners Johnson (6-1, two saves, 1.86 ERA), Jacob Melton (5-0, one save, 0.17 ERA) and Ethan Whitney (5-2, two saves, 2.82 ERA) have steadied the pitching rotation, along with newcomers Ricky Boortz (7-2, 2.75 ERA), Ryan Sandoval (3-1, 3.54 ERA) and Brady Buchanan (1-0, 2.49 ERA).
The Mustangs have won 17 of their last 18 games entering the state tourney, including six in a row that allowed them to clinch the Area 4 crown (four of those at Legion Field). Medford, however, hasn’t played a game since last Sunday.
“I think we’re playing good, our pitching is doing really well,” said Mayben. “The thing I’m worried about right now is just all the time off and your timing at the plate. I think defensively we’ll be able to play just fine but my concern is are we going to be able to go to the plate and have our timing there and have our approach be right. We’re going to be facing a team from Beaverton that I know has some good pitching so that’s going to be our biggest obstacle.”
Hitting hasn’t really been an issue all season, with Medford boasting a team batting average of .358, but losing at least six at-bats with the change to seven innings and potential rust is something the Mustangs and other league champions like the Hillsboro Barbers (28-10), Mid-Valley Southpaws (23-14) and host Roseburg (22-20) will certainly battle Saturday.
“The first game is going to be huge for us,” said Johnson. “Last year in the first game after we had a week off it took us four or five innings to get it going, but those games last year were nine innings. A seven-inning game is shorter so we’ve got to really come out ready to hit.”
Melton continues to be on pace for a single-season Mustangs record as he enters the state tournament with a team-best .517 batting average to go with 60 runs, 59 RBIs, 22 stolen bases, 10 home runs and 29 extra-base hits overall.
Johnson has also been a steady contributor at the plate, batting .458 with 69 runs, 37 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, seven home runs and 26 extra-base hits overall.
Jack Thompson (.385, 36 runs, 54 RBIs), Brennen Watts (.374, 45 runs, 23 RBIs), Wyatt Baptiste (.374, 28 runs, 18 RBIs), Justin Geyer (.357, 24 runs, 37 RBIs) and Jon-o Gassman (.351, 35 runs, 28 RBIs) have also allowed the Mustangs to put steady pressure on their opponents all summer.
Another key factor for Medford has been its ability to disregard whatever the score is — whether leading or trailing — and remain confident in each other to come up with quality at-bats or defensive plays.
“We never get too hard on ourselves,” said Johnson. “That’s really helped us in important games when we’ve gotten down, we always just stay loose because we know what we’re capable of late in games. We’re a team that never quits, we’re always working hard for each other.”
In Saturday’s other openers at the double-elimination state tournament, the Dallas Dirtbags (34-10) play the Hillsboro Barbers at 1 p.m., the Salem Withnell Dodgers (26-16) play the Mid-Valley Southpaws at 4 p.m. and host Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s face the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen (24-18) at 7 p.m.
A win Saturday for Medford will put them in a 4 p.m. second-round game Sunday against the winner of the contest between Salem and Mid-Valley, while a loss would pit them against that game’s loser at 10 a.m.
The state championship game — or pair of games if necessary — will be Wednesday.
General admission for one game in Roseburg is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors age 55 and over and $4 for children age 6-12. Day passes are $10, with tournament passes available at $25 apiece.
All games will also be streamed live on 541Radio.com free of charge.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry