A hard-fought baseball fracas between two longtime rivals turned into one of the most exciting games recently played on Payson High School diamond.
The clash, which was contested April 6, was a crucial East region showdown that pitted the Show Low Cougars against a Longhorn team that had its back against the wall, partly because Payson had lost an earlier matchup against the Cats.
In that game, which was played March 15 in Show Low, the green and gold run ruled Payson 13-2.
Another loss to SL would have put a huge damper on Horn hopes to advance to the postseason.
But by rallying from an early 4-0 deficit to win 8-7 over SL, Payson remains in the hunt for East honors and an advantageous seed into the 3A state tournament.
With a 4-3 record, the Horns are tied with Snowflake for third place in the East. At 5-0 Blue Ridge is atop the standings over runner-up Show Low (4-1).
But enough of the standings, let’s get back to the electrifying win over Show Low.
The excitement climaxed in the bottom of the seventh and final inning with Show Low clinging to a precarious 7-6 lead.
Ryan Rislund led off the inning with as base hit and advanced to second on Juan Machado’s sacrifice bunt. Just pitches later, Rislund took third via a passed ball.
Reaching deep into the Cougar playbook, coach David Nikolaus drew in his infield to cut off a potential tying run at home. But the strategy backfired when Jake Sleeper bounced a single through the infield that scored Rislund to tie up the game at 7-7.
C.J. Nottingham was inserted to run for Jake Sleeper and Westin Gibson drew a walk to put runners at first and second with one out.
On a 0-2 count, Chance Randall ripped a hot shot through the drawn infield to score Nottingham with the winning run.
Whew, that was a nail biter.
As pulsating as the win was, a PHS “W” looked highly unlikely in the first inning when Show Low scored four runs on two singles, two walks and a home run that barely cleared the centerfield fence and wild pitches.
Trailing 4-0 and later in the game, 5-0, the Horns finally got on the board in the bottom of the third on Gibson’s one-out home run that scored Machado, who had walked.
For the game, Machado was on base three times.
Show Low took a 7-2 lead in the top of the fourth, only to see the Horns score three runs of their own in the bottom of the frame.
The big hit of the inning was freshman Nick McMullen’s bases loaded triple off the right center field fence that pulled the Longhorns to within 7-5. Gibson also doubled during the rally.
In the fifth, it was the PHS defense that drew praise from coach Scott Novack.
“Ryan Rislund saved at least a double with a leaping catch at the fence in left center,” he said. “Then second baseman Cale Novack went way up to catch a line drive and double a Show Low runner at second.”
Trailing by two runs, Edwin Estrada’s solo home run in the bottom of the sixth pulled the Horns to within 7-6 and keep Horn hopes, which were once almost dead, on life support.
In the top of the seventh, the Cougars were threatening to score an insurance run with a runner at second.
Next up, a Cougar hitter doubled off the fence in right center and it appeared Show Low would soon be leading by two.
“But Machado made a strong throw to Gibson who relayed home to Estrada,” coach Novack remembers. “Estrada made a great stop and applied the tag at home to get the Show Low runner.”
The Cougar threat to tack on another run was squashed when Sleeper struck out the next batter to end the inning and set the stage for the bottom of the seventh heroics. Although Sleeper got off to a rough start on the hill, he went the distance, giving up six earned runs while scattering 13 hits. He also walked five and struck out seven.
The Horns were set to take on the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets on April 8 in Payson. The game, however, was postponed due to the threat of inclement weather and will be played at a later date.
The make-up date will be announced later this week. The Horns play today, April 12, in a non-region game against Class 2A St. Johns. Game time is 3:30 p.m. in St. Johns.