Twenty days. That's how long it had been since recent Ashland High graduate and Medford Mustangs infielder Eric Carlson had seen a live pitch before he stepped into the batter's box in the third inning of Sunday's American Legion AAA state championship game against the Portland Barbers.
Carlson pulled a muscle on the left side of his lower back during the first game of a doubleheader against the Eugene Challengers on July 14 and, following visits to a massage therapist and a chiropractor, had come to the conclusion that long-term relief for his aching body could only come through rest. The big question was, how long would it take.
The answer came only days before the state tournament began last Wednesday when the pain in Carlson's back subsided enough to make batting practice tolerable. He promptly told Mustangs head coach Nate Mayben, who told Carlson that maybe he'd be used as a pinch hitter.
Carlson never got that chance in the first four days of the tournament — all Medford wins — but when Mayben decided to start first baseman/pitcher David Crofton on the mound Sunday against Portland, that left a hole at first base. Carlson thought he could fill that void and, as the rest of the Mustangs gathered their things Saturday night, asked Mayben about it.
"That's what I'm hoping," Mayben responded. "Do you want to play?"
Carlson could hardly contain himself.
"It's the state championship game," he said, "of course I want to play."
So the lineup was set. Crofton would be on the mound and Carlson at first as the Mustangs went for their 12th state title and first since 2008. As the only undefeated team remaining in Grants Pass, Medford could afford a loss to Portland, but that would mean a do-or-die final game, not to mention nine more innings under the hot August sun. All of which made Carlson a nervous wreck Saturday night.
"I couldn't sleep," he said. "I found myself awake at two in the morning, just laying awake staring at the ceiling, wanting it to be 12 o'clock already."
When 12 o'clock finally rolled around, Carlson was ready.
Portland starter Ryan Kaser shut down the Mustangs through the first two innings, so Carlson, batting in the eight hole, didn't come to the plate for his first at-bat until the third. Most players who have not seen a live pitch in three weeks would let the first one go — get a good look, get their timing down, settle in. But Carlson, a notorious first-pitch attack dog, decided that Kaser's first offering, a belt-high fastball, looked pretty juicy and went for it.
"Going back to probably my early high school years my dad would always tell me, 'Try to be aggressive and swing at the first pitch because — especially against pitchers who like to work ahead — that's usually the best pitch you're going to see in an at-bat,'" Carlson said. "Luckily it was right there, so I took a hack."
The result was the hardest hit of the day, a line drive off the wall in left that at first looked destined for the trees behind the fence at the Grants Pass Sports Park. Carlson certainly thought so. He settled into a casual home run trot for a beat or two before realizing his mistake and hustling to second base for a double.
"Off the bat I thought it was out," he said. "Then I watched it go off the middle of the wall so I kind of had to pick up my speed rounding first."
"Probably I would have at least saw one pitch and just made sure I had some good at-bats, maybe be able to see a few," Mayben said, chuckling, "but that's not Eric. Eric's an aggressive hitter, so he just did what he does at the plate and he does swing at first pitches. I think he was feeling confident at the time and knew he was going to get a fastball. I'm glad he did."
What's it like to come back from a three-week hiatus with a first-pitch double with a state title on the line? Not bad, actually.
"It felt like it was meant to be, I guess," Carlson said. "It felt like it was huge for the team and I really wanted to make a point to stand up and scream at our dugout and get all of them fired up."
Turns out, Carlson was just getting warmed up. With the teams still locked in a 0-0 pitchers' duel in the seventh and runners at second and third, Carlson came to the plate for his third and most crucial at-bat of the day.
"There were two outs so I was just planning on hitting it hard somewhere," he said. "I just wanted to make good contact with the ball and hopefully see it go through and get those runs in. I was looking for a fastball because I had a good eye on the fastball all day, so I figured if (Kaser) threw me another one then I could probably hit it pretty hard somewhere."
He was a little more selective this time, watching the first two pitches go by before Kaser did indeed deliver the fastball that Carlson was hoping for. He hit it square, and the ball sailed over the second baseman and into center field to easily score both baserunners and give the Mustangs all the runs they would need for the eventual 6-1 win.
Carlson added another single in the ninth to cap a 3-for-4 day at the plate. If that were all, Carlson would have had plenty to be proud of, but he also was a stalwart on defense, making several tough scoops — including a dig that completed a crucial double play in the early going — and fielding a tough grounder before flipping to Crofton for a highlight-reel put-out.
All in all, it was a great, clutch performance from a player who wasn't a sure bet to finish the game.
"We were kind of rolling the dice a little bit," Mayben said, "because we weren't really sure what we'd get out of him defensively and offensively. He really surprised us all, I think."
Now, Carlson's performance may present a dilemma for Mayben when it comes time to fill out the Mustangs' lineup card for their Northwest Regional opener against Alaska on Thursday in Eugene. It's usually not a good idea to mess with success — Medford enters regionals on a 13-game winning streak — but Carlson, who's batting .341 with 20 RBIs, could provide the Mustangs with another potent bat in a tournament that's sure to feature plenty of solid pitching.
Carlson says he would love to play in Eugene, but has accepted the possibility that he won't. Either way, he's grateful that he was given a shot in Grants Pass and made the most of it. And to top it all off, it was Carlson who made the final out, clinching the state crown by digging a low throw from shortstop Micah Brown three months after one of Carlson's most painful losses, Ashland's Class 5A state quarterfinal setback to Sherwood.
It was a full-circle moment for Carlson and he didn't hold back, dropping to his knees after squeezing the ball before raising his arms, throwing both his glove and the ball into the air and running toward the obligatory pile-up. When he saw that the pile had already formed without him, Carlson simply leaped on top.
"To be honest, I couldn't even tell you (what it was like) because I can barely remember it," he said. "All I can remember is catching it and dropping to my knees. I've always wanted to be part of (a pile-up) but never had the opportunity, so when it finally came I just jumped on top, literally."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.