After watching the opportunity to nail down two crucial Central Division diamond wars go by the wayside last week, the Lady Longhorn softball team returned to the friendly confines of Payson High School diamond Thursday afternoon against the Santa Cruz Dust Devils.
The Lady Horns stood 1-2 in the Central and desperately needed a victory to stay in the race for a top three finish in the division and the resulting berth in postseason play. (Thursday's game results were not available at press time.)
Prior to taking on the Devils, Payson coach Greg Larkins said the team's success would hinge on the Lady Horn pitchers' ability to throw strikes.
In last week's losses, 10-9 to Globe on March 23 and 8-2 to Fountains Hills on March 26, the Horn hurling staff of Monica Mendoza and Sidney Swartwood issued a whopping 19 walks.
The Globe encounter, Larkins said, "was lost because of the number of walks allowed (10)."
Further compounding the squad's woes were Globe bats that came alive when runners were in scoring position.
The loss to Fountain Hills was almost an instant replay of the Globe game, as Horn pitchers issued nine walks and Falcon hitters stroked timely hits that produced RBIs.
In the two loses, the Lady Horns were without the services of pitcher Tiffany Lubken, who has been sidelined with a stress fracture in her leg. Lubken was scheduled to return to the lineup in time for yesterday's game against Santa Cruz, assistant coach Cheri Brennen said.
Her return, Larkins said, should bolster the hurling staff.
As a seasoned pitcher with loads of ASA experience on a Paradise Valley team, Lubken has shown good control on the mound and owns a variety of pitches to help befuddle opposing hitters.
The damage that bases on balls can inflict was never more evident than in the loss to the Falcons. In the bottom of the second, without recording a hit, the Falcons were able to increase their 1-0 lead to 2-0 when three of the five batters that went to the plate drew walks.
In the sixth inning, two walks, a hit batsmen and just one single pushed the Falcons' cushion from 6-2 to 8-2.
Against Globe, four bases on balls issued by Mendoza in the bottom of the sixth contributed to a four-run Tiger uprising that erased Payson's 8-4 lead.
As the starting hurler in both games, Mendoza absorbed the losses. Swartwood relieved late in both encounters.
The good news in the two frays is that Payson bats are beginning to show signs of new-found life.
After watching the team's offense struggle to almost a standstill in the early part of the season, Larkins said the team's hitting has improved over the last two games. "Now all we need to do is to be more consistent," he said.
Against Fountain Hills, facing what Larkins said was "the best pitcher we have seen this season," the Payson hitters pounded out seven hits -- but unfortunately they didn't occur with runners in scoring position.
Sage Walden tacked up the Lady Horns' initial tally in the top of the second after singling, advancing on a stolen base and scoring on a single by Brandyce Engler.
The Lady Horns' only other tally came in the seventh when Jamie Peace got aboard on a single and scored on Sidney Swartwood's base hit.
Swartwood turned a banner day at the plate, finishing 3-for-4 with two singles and a double. She also swiped two bases in two attempts.
Tigers claw Horn hopes
Against Globe, the Horns fell behind early, 4-1, but rallied in the third and fourth frames to take a 7-4 lead. In the final two innings, the Tigers rallied for six runs to salvage the Central triumph.
"A loss, but an exciting game," Brennen said.
Swartwood again led the hitting attack for the Horns from her lead-off position, finishing with two singles and three runs scored in four plate appearances.
Eve Ketchem and Engler were also 2-for-4 -- all singles.
Payson's only extra-base hit in the two frays was Swartwood's double against Fountain Hills.