MEDFORD — It took 15 hits, a clutch performance by a relief pitcher and, indirectly, a football game played 5,000 miles away, but the Salem Senators have ended the Ashland Pilots' reign atop the state of Oregon.
Brandon Chinn was 3-for-4 with four RBIs and reliever Jamie Hoffman pitched his way out of three jams in the last three innings as Salem beat the two-time defending state champions 10-8 in an American Legion A state tournament loser-out game Sunday at Jim McAbee Field.
The win advances the Senators to the final round of the loser's bracket, where they will face Roseburg at 4 p.m. today for a spot in the championship round. Ashland, which played the tournament sans four starters who were in Japan for the Pacific Rim Bowl, suffered its second straight loss after beating Sheldon in the first round.
"Outstanding season," Ashland first-year coach Josh Leedy said. "These guys compete in every single baseball game — comeback victories, extra-inning victories, dominating performances. I'm just really, really proud of the way they battled all season, took care of business and just came up a couple runs short in the end."
In other tournament action Sunday, Roseburg pounded LaGrande 16-0 in five innings and North Medford edged North Eugene 8-7. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament wraps up Tuesday.
The Pilots (36-8) scored five runs on six singles to cut an 8-2 deficit to 8-7 in the fifth, but couldn't complete the comeback against Hoffman, who allowed one unearned run on three hits in 21/3 innings to pick up the save.
Salem starter Jordan Giza limited the Pilots to two runs on five hits through the first four innings but lost his swagger in the fifth, when he gave up two runs before getting pulled in favor of Austin Chipman with nobody out and the bases loaded. Two outs and three runs later Hoffman took over and got Ashland slugger Luke Baldrica to ground into a fielder's choice with the bases juiced.
That was only the first successful escape by Hoffman. He also coaxed a long fly out with the tying run at third base in the sixth and another fly out with the tying run at the plate in the seventh.
"They made the plays," Baldrica said. "They came up with some big defensive plays that really changed the course of the game if they don't make them, and they hit the ball, too."
Billy Hansen was 4-for-5 with two RBIs and a stolen base and Brady Thomas was 3-for-4 with three RBIs to lead Ashland, which didn't see much of a drop on offense over the weekend despite playing shorthanded.
Ashland starting pitcher Ethan Schlecht allowed six earned runs on 15 hits in 62/3 innings. He struck out two and walked four.
Clinging to a one-run lead, Salem added two insurance runs in the top of the seventh when Chinn and Giza delivered back-to-back RBI singles with two outs. That rally proved crucial in the bottom of the inning, when Hayden Miller pounded a two-out double then came around to score on a throwing error. With Hansen at second, Baldrica came to the plate representing the tying run. He worked the count to 2-2, then lifted a fly ball to right that Chad Cox squeezed for the final out.
"We could have done better," said Ashland designated hitter Kealii Cecil, who came through with the game-winning home run in the 11th inning of Ashland's first-round win over Sheldon. "We didn't have all of our best players here, but we did good for what we had. It was rough, but I'm satisfied."
A base-running gaffe may have cost the Pilots the tying run in the sixth, when Cecil was caught between first and second base after losing track of the count and mistakenly believing that Schlecht was issued a walk. Three pitches later Schlecht did reach first on a walk and eventually advanced to third on a passed ball and a wild pitch. With two outs, Ashland catcher Evan Westhelle capped a solid eight-pitch at-bat by ripping a hard drive to right, but Cox was positioned perfectly for the easy grab.
Salem scored three runs on four hits and a Miller throwing error to take a quick 3-0 lead in the first inning. Ashland cut the lead to one in the bottom of the inning on Thomas' two-run single to center.
The Senators blew the game open in the third, fourth and fifth innings, scoring five runs, including two on Chinn's two-out double in the fifth. Chinn was tagged out attempting to stretch it into a triple.
Salem's 8-2 lead didn't last long. Ashland quickly loaded the bases in the fifth on two singles and an error then cut the lead to 8-4 on consecutive infield singles by Schlecht and Thomas. Westhelle's ground out brought home another run, and the Pilots added two more on run-scoring singles by Miller and Hansen.
That brought up Baldrica with the bases still loaded. But with the tying run at third, the go-ahead run at second and two outs, Baldrica, one of Ashland's premier power hitters, could only muster a hard chopper to short that was turned into a 6-4 fielder's choice.
The Pilots blew a similar opportunity in the previous inning, when Miller grounded into a rare 1-2-3 inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.
"I just remember (thinking) don't hit into a double play," said Miller, who graduated from Ashland High in June and will try to make the Lane Community College baseball team as a walk-on. "As soon as I hit it I was screwed."
The loss ended the Pilots' bid for a third straight state title. But with the nine-day trip for the Pacific Rim Bowl coinciding with the state tournament this one would have been the most surprising of all. Missing from Ashland's roster were starting shortstop and leadoff hitter Nick Hall, ace pitcher and cleanup hitter Lucas Stone, starting third baseman Brent Hegdahl and starting catcher AJ Adams.
"Nobody's disappointed about the season," said Miller, a key contributor on both state championship teams who also helped Ashland High win the Class 5A state title in 2008. "We finished first our (league) and the coaches were happy and the players all got along the whole season. This team had good chemistry and I'm sorry to see it end."
Leedy was also bummed afterward, but said the Pilots' scrappy performance at state — Ashland's two losses were by a combined three runs — confirmed what he already knew about his team.
"The guys showed their character again," Leedy said. "Everybody said, 'You don't have your guys, you played well for who you had.'" I don't agree with that. I think we were right there with everybody else out here. So it hurts. It stings a little bit to lose that game."
Miller and Cecil are the only players who will be too old to play for the Pilots next summer, although a few others may try out for the Medford Mustangs, the nearest AAA American Legion program.
The 2010 team will have a hard act to follow. The Pilots won 35 of 41 games during the regular season, cruising to an Area 4 South title behind mostly dominating doubleheader sweeps.
"Best team I've ever had coaching," Leedy said. "They were amazing, what they could do sometimes — some of the plays they made, some of the hits they came up with, some of the pitching performances. Just a great, great group of kids to be around. I never had to pull one kid aside. Great attitudes. Great chemistry on the team. You can't ask for much more than that as a coach."
Salem 302 120 2 — 10 15 2
Ashland 200 050 1 — 8 14 2
Giza, Chipman (5), Hoffman (5) and Ludwig; Schlecht and Westhelle. W — Giza. L — Schlecht. 2B — S: Hoffman, Chin, Marlatt; A: Miller, Ke. Cecil.
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or email@example.com