They crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in their dirty white van and passed the hours with card games and texts as the odometer ticked away, from the sun-scorched Nevada desert to the lush Willamette Valley. And in the end, laments Eric Carlson with a sigh, thousands of miles after their journey began the Medford Mustangs fell only a few hundred feet shy of their dream destination – Shelby, N.C., site of the American Legion World Series.
“It was just kind of sad to see it come to an end,” said Carlson, one of four Ashlanders to play for Mustangs. “We have a lot of really close friendships on the team and it’s sad to see those friendships kind of start to spread out.”
Recent Ashland High graduates Carlson, Bryce Rogan and Carter Glick and AHS senior-to-be Steen Fredrickson are moving on now, trying to make the most of their last few days of freedom before school begins. The short break follows one of the most surprising late-season turnarounds in Mustangs history, a charge that ended with Monday’s 8-6 loss to Waipahu, Hawaii in the Northwest Regional championship game in Eugene.
“When you look at where we were halfway through the season, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment to finish in the top 16,” Rogan said. “But that said, it’s still disappointing because we were so close.”
The Mustangs were struggling with consistency and appeared destined for a second straight two-and-out postseason after the Post 20 Dirtbags swept a nonleague doubleheader in Medford on July 12, dropping the Mustangs to 19-13. But something clicked when the Mustangs took the field the following day against the Corvallis Marketmen, a game the Mustangs won easily, 11-3.
Simultaneously, lineup tweaks paid off and Medford’s bats heated up. Shortstop Micah Brown, a North Medford High graduate who suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, was finally cleared by doctors to throw and was promptly inserted into the starting lineup after spending the first half of the season as the designated hitter. And Rogan, who started the season on the bench, was rewarded for his consistency at the plate by moving to fourth in the batting order.
Head coach Nate Mayben made a few other tweaks as well, each of which seemed to work. Over the next four weeks Medford took off, winning 16 games in a row, many by lopsided margins. The streak included a 5-0 blitz through the state tournament in Grants Pass and three straight wins at regionals in which Medford scored a whopping 56 runs.
“I think it was just that we turned a light switch on at one point and thought to ourselves, we need to play the game right,” said Carlson, who along with Glick, one of his four roommates, leaves for Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., on Tuesday. “And getting (Brown) back was big because he’s definitely the leader of the team and he brought the spark, and everybody followed his example.”
“Having (Brown) out there on the field was really helpful,” said Rogan, who leaves for Pamona College in Claremont, Calif., next weekend. “And just understanding what the Mustangs program means to a lot of people with the alumni game, seeing that it’s a big deal and really important to a lot of people.”
The 3-0 start at regionals guaranteed Medford a spot in the championship round, but its streak ended the next day, Sunday, against Boise, Idaho, with a 7-4 setback. Waipahu then beat Boise 7-4 Monday to set up the winner-take-all championship game later that afternoon.
As if the Mustangs didn't already know how close they were to the World Series, a cameraman made sure by showing up at their hotel Sunday night to take their pictures for ESPN. The network will broadcast live on ESPN3 each World Series game leading up to the final, then broadcast the final live on ESPNU.
“It was definitely in the back of everyone’s mind,” Rogan said.
Medford lost some of its momentum against Boise but still liked its chances against a Waipahu team that only carried 13 players and was preparing for its second game of the day in temperatures that approached 100 degrees at Swede Johnson Stadium.
Glick got the start, but lasted just 1 1/3 innings after Waipahu took advantage of three hits, two walks and an error to jump out to a 3-0 lead in the second. Medford scored two in the fifth to cut the lead to one – Rogan’s sacrifice bunt plated Taylor Raff from third for the second run of the inning – but Waipahu came right back with four runs in the top of the sixth.
The Mustangs continued to fight, notching three in the seventh after Rogan’s single to right kept alive a two-out rally.
Still down two in the bottom of the ninth, Medford tried to mount one last comeback when Brown and David Crofton hit back-to-back singles, bringing the potential winning run to the plate with nobody out.
Cheering themselves hoarse in the Medford dugout, Rogan and Carlson both thought the Mustangs would somehow pull it out. Carlson, sitting out with a sore back, even fetched his glove – after a pinch runner replaced Crofton, Carlson figured he’d take over at first base in the top of the 10th.
“I expected that we would tie it up, and that I would be at first base and we would have a walk-off (hit) in the next inning or something,” Carlson said.
“I thought we’d come back, just like we had done so many times during the streak.”
Not this time. The next batter, Josh Berman, fell behind 0-2 whiffing consecutive sacrifice bunt attempts before going down looking, and moments later Waipahu shortstop Brent Sakurai scooped up a hard grounder off the bat of Jared Evans and threw to third for a clutch force-out. Isaiah Luzney, representing Medford’s last chance, then slapped a 3-0 pitch to second baseman Jordan Mopas, who threw to first to clinch Hawaii’s second straight Northwest Regional championship.
“It’s a regional final and we were all ready to go, but (Waipahu) just did what they needed to do,” Rogan said. “They’re a really patient team. Their pitcher threw a lot of change-ups and once we got behind – we weren’t used to being behind during our streak – we were pressing and trying to do a little too much and ended up getting in tough spots.”
“I gotta give (Waipahu) credit,” Carlson added. “They were always fighting. I think that was shown by their season last year. We should have done a lot better than we did, but there’s only so much you can do.”
Now, Waipahu is off to the eight-team, six-day World Series, which is played at Veterans Field at Keeter Stadium, while the Mustangs, who finished 35-15, are left to wonder what might have been.
Despite the heartbreaking finish, however, the Mustangs exceeded all expectations, and their Ashland connection had a lot to do with that. Rogan led the team with a .388 batting average after going 11-for-17 at regionals, scored 37 runs and drove in 29. Carlson batted .354 with 23 RBIs in 30 games despite being limited by a back injury. Glick and Fredrickson made 10 pitching appearances apiece. Glick was 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA and Fredrickson 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA.
All are planning on coming back next summer for one last shot at going to the big show.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Rogan said, “but with the kids we have coming back and the motivation from almost going … A lot of us feel like we should be in North Carolina right now.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.