By a whisker, and maybe less, Ashland is headed back to Volcanoes Stadium.
Grizzlies' shortstop Nick Hall gunned out Madras speedster Spencer Ellsbury as the potential game-tying run sprinted home, preserving Ashland's 5-4 comeback victory in the Class 5A state semifinals Tuesday at North Mountain Park.
The win gives the third-ranked Grizzlies (24-5) their second championship berth in three years Saturday against North Eugene (21-9), which pummeled West Albany 11-1 in Tuesday's other semifinal.
With two outs and runners on second and third in the top of the seventh, Ellsbury, Madras' cleanup hitter, was trying to beat out a chopper to short and keep the White Buffaloes' surprising playoff run going, but Hall fired a bullet across the diamond to beat the sliding Ellsbury by a hair.
After first baseman Billy Hansen squeezed the final out the Grizzlies poured onto the field for a brief celebration, the biggest emotional release here since Ashland routed Pendleton in the 2008 semis.
"We stayed with our approach," said Hall, who went 2-for-4 at the plate with two doubles, "and in baseball you get a lot of chances to come back, so we just tried to stay calm and do what we've always done this year and it worked.
"It's an awesome feeling."
After bullying its way through a 16-0 Southern Sky Conference season the Grizzlies have pulled off consecutive comebacks, digging their way out of a 2-0 hole Tuesday against Madras ace and Intermountain Conference player of the year Turner Gill. The senior all-star led Madras (21-9), the IMC No. 2 seed, to a second-round upset of fourth-ranked Sherwood and a quarterfinal rout of Crater, earning the White Buffaloes their first-ever semifinal berth.
"I guess I just ran out of gas today," said Gill, who gave up five earned runs on 11 hits, including six for extra bases. "They were beating me up pretty good and I needed to get the ball down and I was leaving the ball up. They're a really good hitting team."
Ashland scored what proved to be the game-winning run on Ethan Schlecht's home run down the left field line in the fifth inning. The blast, Schlecht's third of the season, gave the Grizzlies a 5-2 lead.
Schlecht went 2-for-3 with a double to go with the homer and scored twice to lead Ashland's offense.
Usually, a three-run cushion would be considered insurmountable with Ashland ace Ian Kendall on the mound, but Kendall, who gave up two earned runs during the regular season and four Tuesday, struggled to put the White Buffaloes away.
Kendall Main led off the seventh with a single and Theron Spino walked to bring up Gill, Madras' leadoff hitter, who represented the tying run. After Kendall missed on his first two pitches Ashland head coach Don Senestraro decided to issue an intentional walk, loading the bases for Auzzy Say. Say's grounder to third led to a force out at home, bringing the Grizzlies within an out of the finals.
Ryan Brunner followed with a bloop single to center that landed just beyond the outstretched glove of Hall, scoring two runs. That brought up Ellsbury, who fell behind 0-2, took a ball, then muscled another tough pitch to Hall's left.
"I knew I had him once I got the ball cleanly," Hall said.
Kendall said he wasn't worried, even after Madras put the potential game-winning run at second base.
"Surprisingly, I felt more pressure during the first six innings," said Kendall (9-2), who struck out 10 and walked seven (two intentionally) to pick up his second win of the postseason. "I didn't really feel much pressure there because I just knew that somebody was going to step up and make a play."
Down 2-0 heading into the top of the third, Ashland, which overcame a 7-1 deficit at Thurston Friday, cut Madras' lead in half in the bottom of the inning and passed the visitors for good in the fourth.
In the third, Hall smacked his first double to start the inning and scored on a fielder's choice.
In the fourth, Ashland scored three runs on four hits, including RBI singles by Brent Hegdahl and Billy Hansen and an RBI double by Hall. Hegdahl's line drive to center tied the game, and Hall's rocket over Ellsbury's head in center gave the Grizzlies a 3-2 lead.
Gill, who entered the game having pitched 12 innings in seven days, relied mostly on a curve and a fastball — both lost some kick as the game wore on.
"We knew there were a couple kids in (Ashland's) lineup that could hit, and our pitcher is going off his third start in as many playoff games," Madras coach Adam Randall said. "(Gill) came to me and said, 'I want the ball and if we lose, it's my fault.' If he doesn't throw against Crater (in the semis) we don't even make it here. So he got tired, missed his location a few times, and a couple great hitters made some swings."
Ashland now has three days to prepare for another playoff clash with North Eugene, which has seen its last two seasons end at the hands of the Grizzlies, both times in the state quarterfinals and both times at Eugene.
This time, the game will be played in Salem, and the Grizzlies will be gunning for their second state title.
Does this Ashland team have that special something that the '08 Grizzlies did?
"I don't know how to compare teams," Senestraro said. "That 2008 team was great "… but this team is scrappy, too. I'm glad I had both of them."
Madras 002 000 2 — 4 2 2
Ashland 001 310 x — 5 11 0
Gill and R. Smith; Kendall and Scarminach. W — Kendall (9-2). L — Gill. 2B — M: Brunner; A: Hall 2, Baldrica, Schlecht, Scarminach. HR — Schlecht (3).