Mustangs’ state title streak ends at six
ROSEBURG — For the better part of the past decade, the Medford Mustangs have been the ones posing with the banner that says they’re the state champions.
But on Wednesday, the Mustangs found themselves in an unfamiliar position after the final out was recorded at the American Legion AAA state tournament: Runner-up.
After beating the Hillsboro Barbers 3-1 behind Cody Borraggine’s five-hit gem to reach yet another state title game, the Mustangs couldn’t replicate their late-inning stronghold from a few hours earlier against the Eugene Challengers.
In what proved to be a decisive fifth inning, Eugene’s offense came alive in a hurry, scoring five runs to flip the script and claim a 6-2 victory at Legion Field to end Medford’s run of six consecutive state titles that dates back to 2014.
Last year’s state tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m just proud of them. ‘That’s life’ is what I told them, and sometimes life hits you and how you handle that is what makes you who you are,” Mustangs manager Nate Mayben said. “This is a great group of guys. They’ve grinded all summer, and I couldn’t have asked for our guys to work harder, do more, sacrifice more. These guys give up a lot — they don’t get opportunities to go camping or go on family vacations. They sacrifice for it, but they get this experience in return.”
The winner-take-all matchup Wednesday afternoon was thanks to no team running the table at the state tournament, a sign of just how competitive the top teams were over the course of the last week.
After beating Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s 6-5 in 12 innings Tuesday, the Mustangs (45-14) knew they needed at least 14 more innings of solid baseball to continue their streak of state championships.
Through the first 4 ½ innings of Wednesday’s deciding game, that was the case.
Then the bottom of the fifth inning happened.
With Medford holding a 2-1 lead, Eugene (46-12) strung together five straight hits to suddenly go ahead 5-2. Kayden Sandow and Dane Woodcook hit back-to-back doubles to tie it at 2-all, then Dylan Carson singled to put runners at the corners and knock Medford starting pitcher Gavin Schmidt out of the game.
Eugene second baseman Dylan Irwin greeted Medford relief pitcher AJ Balsiger in tough fashion, hitting a two-run triple to left on the first pitch he saw to put the Challengers ahead 4-2.
Cooper Mullens and Callan Vreim added RBI singles to cap the big inning for Eugene, which finished runner-up to Medford for the Area 4 championship.
“You gotta tip your cap to them,” Mayben said. “They had four or five hits there with maybe one out in between. They were hitting the gaps, hitting the lines and they did a good job. There’s nothing we could have done differently, I think. We took care of the baseball, we didn’t make errors, but they came alive in that fifth inning and that’s what it took.”
Through the first four innings, the Challengers had all of five hits.
In the fifth inning alone, Eugene recorded seven hits.
“It was a little tough (to see), but it happens to every team,” Mustangs second baseman Eli Westrick said. “We’ve had our moments in the tournament where we’ve come alive like that, and the Challengers are a good hitting team and if you give them anything, they’re going to take it a long way. Letting them get ahead in counts and then walking people, they take every advantage.”
Mayben admitted fatigue definitely got to Schmidt, who was throwing well through the first four innings on a hot day in Roseburg. Schmidt allowed eight hits and four runs with six strikeouts in four-plus innings of work.
“He was tired; that’s a long day out here,” Mayben said. “He threw a lot of pitches on Day 1, but he did a heck of a job battling. He had to get himself prepared to pitch (in relief) in the first game today, too, so he spent a lot of time on the mound. I’m proud of his effort and just what he did on the mound. He did a great job.”
The Mustangs gave Schmidt two early runs to work with as they took advantage of early control issues from Challengers starting pitcher Isaac Evaniew.
Westrick lined a two-out RBI single up the middle to score leadoff man Cody Borraggine, who walked to open the game.
The Mustangs doubled their lead an inning later when Borraggine hit an RBI single to left-center.
Eugene, however, cut it to 2-1 moments later on Jaxson Fraser’s RBI double to right.
All of the Challengers’ top four hitters — Fraser, Sandow, Woodcook and Carson — finished with two-hit games.
“Obviously, that fifth inning sets you back a little bit, but we had confidence the whole game,” Mayben said. “We’ve done a lot of damage at the plate this year, so I don’t think we thought it was over until it was over. Getting off to that start against a good pitcher that (Eugene) had on the mound, that gave us some hope and we were trying to ride that for a little while. But, obviously, it didn’t work out.”
Evaniew found his command after his early struggles and was able to work both his fastball and his breaking ball in for strikes on a consistent basis.
Evaniew recorded seven of his eight strikeouts between the third and sixth innings. He limited the Mustangs to just five hits, with only two of those coming after the second inning.
“We were just under the feeling that we needed to put up some more runs,” Westrick said. “(Evaniew) was throwing really well and he threw a good game. It was tough, but I felt like we put together good at-bats and had some good swings, and that’s really all you can ask for from these guys.”
To get to the title game, the Mustangs had to win the day’s first elimination game.
And from the get-go, Borraggine was on point, allowing just three baserunners to make it into scoring position.
Needing just 77 pitches to get through his second complete-game effort of the tourney, Borraggine pounded the strike zone. The left-hander from North Medford failed to throw a first-pitch strike to just two of the 26 batters he faced in the game.
“All season I’ve struggled getting ahead in the count, so today I just went out there (with a mindset of), ‘If they hit a first-pitch change-up or fastball, then so be it.’ I’d rather get ahead then give up a walk or two,” Borraggine said.
Medford tied the game at 1-1 in the second inning on Jeremiah Robbins’ RBI single to right. Three innings later, Jace Miller broke the deadlock when he scored on a wild pitch.
Aiden Horsley provided an insurance run in the top of the seventh with an infield single, then turned it over to Borraggine to close the door.
That’s exactly what he did, recording his third strikeout of the game for the final out.
“Just throwing strikes with all four pitches,” Mayben said in regard to why Borraggine was so efficient against the Barbers. “He did a great job of just putting the ball over the plate and keeping them off-balance inside and outside. He had his breaking ball working, his changeup working, and he would get his fastball in there when he needed to.”
But while the Mustangs were able to hold onto their late lead Wednesday morning, the same couldn’t be said about the game later in the afternoon.
And with it spelled the end of their run of state titles, which made the loss just that much tougher.
Asked what he will remember most about this group, Mayben didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“The memories,” Mayben said. “These guys, we spend so much time together. I mean, every day we’re together, and not one time did these guys do anything that would be disrespectful to opponents or teams or us or just our community. They represented Medford and they represented the high schools they come from very well.”
J. Koons and Bickfacko; Borraggine and Robbins. W — Borraggine (6-4). L — J. Koons. 2B — H: White; M: Miller. 3B — H: Murphy.
Schmidt, Balsiger (5) and Robbins; Evaniew and Woodcook. W — Evaniew. L — Schmidt (7-2). 2B — E: Sandow, Woodcook. 3B — E: Irwin.
Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.