In a showdown that could sport huge consequences by the time the state playoffs roll around in early May, the defending state champion Longhorn baseball team plays host to East rival Show Low at 4 p.m. today (Tuesday) on PHS diamond.
State 10th ranked Payson enters the clash against the sixth-ranked Cougars (7-4) with a 3-2 East mark (8-8-1 overall) and needing a victory to keep its regional ledger on the winning side.
Both teams trail the undefeated Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets (5-0) in the race for the East championship and the top seed into the state tournament.
To earn an advantageous berth into the state finals, the Horns need a top-two East finish.
A third- or fourth-place regular season regional showing would earn Payson an invitation to the championships but as a much less desirable lower seed.
Although it's early in the season, coach Teddy Pettet said the outcome of each regional clash, especially today's against Show Low, will play a pivotal role along the road to state.
The Horns might sport a psychological advantage against Show Low, having beaten the Cougars 13-9 in the Miami Invitational Tournament in early March.
However, should the Horns stumble today against the David Nicholas-coached cats, the momentum would shift to Show Low when the two teams meet for the third time April 28 in Cougar-land.
The Horns' tournament victory over Show Low is not calculated into the final regional standings. Payson enters today's game with their well-rested pitching ace Bryan Zumbro on the mound.
The last time the crafty right-hander hurled was March 29 in 12-0 East victory on PHS diamond.
"He has pitched for five days, so he should be ready to go," Pettet said.
In shutting out the Elks, Zumbro hurled the entire five innings in a contest that was shortened on the 10-run rule. Showing good control of his fast ball, change-up and curve, he faced 21 batters, allowed three hits, struck out nine and walked just one. His performance was strikingly similar to the yeoman-like efforts he turned in last spring while pitching the Horns to the state title.
With Zumbro dominating on the mound, the Horn offense heated up for eight hits but only one was for extra bases.
That came in a fourth-inning rally when ninth-place hitter Robbie Ochoa lifted a two-RBI triple to right field.
The only player in the Horn lineup with multiple hits was senior centerfielder Nick Brunson who finished two for three at the plate.
Brunson ignited a five-run first inning with a bunt single. In the second frame, he swatted a single to right and advanced on a stolen base to help the Horns jump out to a 10-0 lead.
Defensively, the good news on the Horns front is that Pettet's charges committed but one faux pas. That, an infield throwing error in the fourth, was rendered harmless when Zumbro set down the side on two strike- outs on a routine infield fly.
The Horns have played since early May without veteran infielder Cade Bradley who suffered a broken ankle in a basketball pick up game. The date of his return remains uncertain.
Also, the Horns last week lost the services of reliever Joey Klein with a fractured hand. Klein said he remains hopeful he can return to the lineup in time for the playoffs.
The Longhorns return to the PHS diamond Friday against the top-ranked Globe Tigers (9-2).
While not an East region match, the game will give the Longhorns the opportunity to see how they stand up against a squad that has been regarded since preseason as the best in the state.
East action resumes at 11 a.m., April 8 in Eager against Round Valley.