Payson entered Tuesday’s baseball game at defending state champion Fountain Hills struggling.
Struggling to execute defensively.
Struggling to win games.
Struggling to get on a roll.
On the other hand, the Falcons already had a daunting roll going — entering the contest 9-1 on what looked like a start on another Division 3 title.
By contrast, Payson had just suffered a 10-6 loss to Show Low that left the Longhorns 3-4 and looking for answers.
Well, they seemed to find a lot of them on Tuesday.
Nick McMullen homered and drove in two runs and Miguel Mendoza pitched six strong innings as PHS beat the Falcons 11-3.
Errors have plagued the Longhorns. They had four in a season-opening loss to Phoenix Northwest Christian and three more against Show Low. But they committed just one on Tuesday.
“This is a big win for us,” said Payson coach Brian Young. “The guys really stepped up today. Anytime you can go get a win at the home of the defending state champions you are going to feel positive about it. I am very proud of our guys. We have battled some adversity in the early part of the season and they are hanging in there and staying positive.”
Young said the Longhorns’ challenging schedule should pay dividends in the power rankings, which determine the seeding for the Division 3 state tournament.
“I think by the end of the season the power points will show us having one of the top opponents average (for strength of schedule),” the skipper said. “Every tough opponent we play is only going to benefit us as we go. It is still early in the season and right now the goal is to continue to get better every day.”
The Horns (3-2 in power points games) didn’t have much time to celebrate with a home game against a strong Snowflake squad scheduled for Wednesday, March 19. They then have an eight-day break before opening the Section 5 schedule at home against Lakeside Blue Ridge on Thursday, March 27.
Nick Wojstiak fired a one-hit shutout to beat PHS at Fountain Hills last season. But the Horns got to him for two runs before he left with an injury after facing one batter in the top of the fourth. Fountain Hills strung together four consecutive hits to score three times in the bottom of the fourth to take a 3-2 lead. McMullen belted a solo home run in the top of the fifth to tie it 3-3 and Ruben Estrada singled in David Evans in the sixth to put PHS ahead 4-3.
And the Horns put it away in the seventh, opening the inning with four consecutive singles, followed by four straight walks in a seven-run outburst.
“We were playing at the end to get another run or two cushion going into the bottom of the seventh, but it was nice to put some hits together and see some guys have patient at bats and work some walks,” Young said.
Payson had eight hits. Estrada was 2-for-4 with a walk and two RBIs. McMullen was 2-for-3 with a home run, a walk, two RBIs, a pair of stolen bases and two runs. Mendoza doubled.
“We put together some nice at bats, especially against a pitcher who totally shut us down last year,” Young said. “Guys battled hard and that led to our offensive success as the game wore on.”
The coach said Mendoza turned in the kind of performance the Horns really needed.
“Miguel is so focused and tough on the mound,” he said. “He was pitching through some flu-like symptoms today and really did a great job. He changed speeds and kept guys off balance. We couldn’t have asked for more from him.”
Dailey Carnes came on in the bottom of the seventh to retire the Falcons in order.
Young said he was happy to see his players execute in the field. “It was nice to see us convert outs consistently,” he said. “We know that we can’t wait for our pitchers to strike everybody out and we have to make plays and we were able to do that. In a close game like this, we can’t afford to make mistakes.”