By Kris Henry
ROSEBURG — Ethan Whitney’s demeanor didn’t change from his first pitch to his last on Monday night at the American Legion AAA state tournament.
With a stern expression and bad intentions on his mind, the veteran Medford Mustangs right-hander locked in on the opposing Dallas Dirtbags and refused to give in to move Medford a valuable step forward in pursuit of a potential fifth straight state championship.
Whitney scattered three hits and never faced more than four batters in an inning to lead the Mustangs to a 1-0 victory over Dallas in a rematch of last year’s state final.
“I wanted it so bad,” said Whitney of Medford’s Day 3 triumph. “We’ve played these guys over the years many times and they’ve always put up a fight. They’ve always been a really good team so I knew it was going to be a battle out here tonight, and I came prepared.”
Armed with a nasty curveball and crisp tailing fastball to go with a front-foot inducing changeup, Whitney was only seriously challenged in one inning as he finished with six strikeouts and only one walk on 86 pitches.
“That was incredible,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben of Whitney’s performance. “I haven’t seen an outing like that in a situation like that in well I don’t think I ever have. He was spot-on with everything and he knew what he wanted to do. We may have called maybe a handful of pitches the whole game, but him and (catcher Bennett Thompson) just had it working. That was awesome.”
With the win, Medford (40-9) put itself in the driver’s seat for Wednesday’s final day of action. As the lone undefeated team remaining in the tournament, the Mustangs have already clinched a spot in Wednesday’s state championship.
A win at 3 p.m. today against the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen (26-19) would mean another team will have to beat the Mustangs twice on Wednesday to halt what is already the greatest championship winning streak by any Oregon team at the Legion AAA level.
“We’re in good shape but we don’t want to have a letdown tomorrow,” said Mayben. “We want to come out and keep the momentum going. We just want to keep it going because this team is going to be hard to beat twice on the last day.”
Dallas (36-11) and the Mid-Valley Southpaws (25-15) will play an elimination game at noon today at Legion Field. If Medford happens to lose to Corvallis, the winner of the Dallas-Mid-Valley game will play the Marketmen at noon Wednesday to earn the right to face the Mustangs in a winner-take-all finale at 3 p.m. A Mustangs win today sets up noon and 3 p.m. games, if necessary, for the state championship Wednesday against today’s early game winner.
Whitney said it didn’t take long for him to figure out that he was in for a good ballgame against the Dirtbags on Monday.
“I knew it was a good night coming out of the bullpen,” he said. “I was locating everything in the bullpen, everything was just right where I wanted it. My curveball was sharp, fastball was tailing and everything was working so I knew it was going to be a good night.”
In reality, the Mustangs needed every bit of Whitney’s success given how Dallas starter Kaleb Kantola was able to continually escape with Medford runners in scoring position. The Mustangs left 10 runners on base — six in scoring position — and left the bases loaded in the second and fourth innings. Kantola allowed four hits with five strikeouts and five walks.
“They had some great pitching tonight and kept our guys at-bay with the bats,” said Whitney. “I knew it was going to be like that coming in so I just went out there and did my best for my team. I was just ready to battle all night long.”
Medford broke the scoreless drought in the top of the fourth inning after Jon-o Gassman got things going by reaching with one out when his grounder was misplayed at third base by Peter Mendazona. Wyatt Baptiste then walked on four pitches before Zac Ankeny was able to work the count for another walk by Kantola to load the bases. After registering a strikeout, Kantola had a chance to get out of the jam but a 3-2 pitch to Joe Johnson was high and inside to bring home the game’s first run.
That proved to be enough for Whitney, whose only real issue came in the bottom of the sixth after leadoff hitter Black Arritula singled and was sacrificed to second base. After a groundout moved Arritula only 90 feet away from tying the game at third base, cleanup hitter Jackson Holstad ripped a low liner to left field that created a gasp but little else as left fielder Wyatt Baptiste came in on the ball to safely register the third out.
“I knew he squared it up and got to the outside pitch with a good piece of hitting,” said Whitney, “but as I tracked it I knew it was right at Wyatt. Before he even caught it I was off the mound just pumped up because I knew he was going to catch that ball and we were going to come back again strong in the seventh.”
Another flyout to left field, a sizzling high fastball strikeout and a fantastic grab by the fence in foul territory by first baseman Johnson sealed the victory in a highly competitive and entertaining matchup of previous unbeatens.
“These games are just fun,” said Whitney. “You just want to do your best out there. You’ve got to go out and compete your hardest in these close games and it gets you amped up. When we got that one-run lead, it just felt like lockdown mode almost and you just get so pumped up because you know you’re going to go get the job done in your heart. It’s just an awesome feeling, I love it.”
Medford’s Justin Geyer kept up his hot hitting with a second-inning double, with Brennen Watts, Jack Thompson and Gassman posting the other Mustang hits.
Whitney and B. Thompson; Kantola and Zellner. W — Whitney (6-2). L — Kantola. 2B — M: Geyer.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry