After a 14-4 win over Holtville last Tuesday, Elmore County’s baseball team appeared to seize control of Class 4A Area 5 but the Bulldogs had something else in mind. Holtville welcomed its cross-county rivals to Smart-Collier Field and saw its pitching depth take over in two high-emotion games as the Bulldogs took control of their own destiny in the race for the area’s two playoff spots.
“That was two hard-fought baseball games,” Holtville coach Torey Baird said. “It was a nail biter the entire time. Every pitch mattered and I’m so proud of our guys for finding a way to get the job done. It was a great team win.”
When No. 8 Elmore County run-ruled the Bulldogs in the first game of the series, Holtville (16-6, 3-1) was looking at must-win situations with their playoff chances hanging in the balance. The Panthers had already knocked around Holtville ace Drew Nobles and got a good start against Chapelle Washam in Game 2.
Elmore County (15-7, 2-2) took a 2-0 lead in the first inning after RBIs from Landon Maynard and Austin Downey. The Panthers had a chance to open up their lead even more but left five runners stranded through the first two innings of the game.
“We had runners on base but we couldn’t find a way to get them in,” ECHS coach Michael Byrd said. “We were just one hit away from blowing that thing open and walking out with a sweep.”
Downey was on the mound for the Panthers and got off to a quick start but some mistakes in the field allowed Holtville to quickly get back in the game. The Bulldogs got on the scoreboard when Nobles scored on a passed ball but the game-changing event happened in the following inning with the Panthers threatening to extend their lead.
With Jamie Singleton on second base, Brody Ward singled to right field but Holtville’s Payton Coburn threw home to cut off Singleton before he could cross the plate. With the ball in the hands of catcher Grant Norton, Singleton did not slide and caused a collision at the plate.
Holtville did not take kindly to the collision as Washam came to his teammate’s defense and shoved Singleton after the third out of the inning. Both Washam and Singleton were ejected from the game but the Bulldogs responded in a big way.
In the bottom of the third, Brylan Shaffer scored on another passed ball to tie the game. Hunter Martin gave the Bulldogs their first lead when he scored on a passed ball with two outs in the inning.
“Any time a team gives you an extra out, you have to take advantage of it,” Baird said. “When we do that, we’re going to be okay. If you throw strikes, play good defense and have quality at bats, you’ll have a chance to win every game.”
After Washam left the game, Holtville had to find a new pitcher and Baird turned to one of the senior leaders. Martin came on in relief and limited the Panthers to just one hit in the final four innings of the game.
“This team is built off family,” Martin said. “I told Chapelle after everything happened that I had his back. When I got out there and was throwing fire like that, it shocked me and I think it shocked everyone else too but it was a great experience.”
Elmore County had only two baserunners over the next three innings but finally threatened in the top of the seventh when the Panthers loaded the bases, still trailing by just one run. However, Martin got Nassin Bryan to ground out to second base to secure the 3-2 win and earn a series split.
“I knew my guys would trust me in that situation,” Martin said. “I just try to block out the moment and step up in that situation. But it was fun and I wouldn’t trade this night for anything.”
During the tiebreaker game, Elmore County turned back to Austin Downey for his remaining 42 pitches. He continued his dominant performance but reached his pitch limit and had to leave the game with the Panthers leading 2-0.
Holtville quickly took advantage when Downey left the mound, tying the game behind RBI hits from Martin and Nobles in the bottom of the third. Elmore County retook the lead in the fourth inning but Coburn scored on an error in the same inning to bring the Bulldogs back again.
“I think it’s a mindset thing for us,” Martin said. “We have all the abilities to be a great team but sometimes we can get in our heads too much. When we don’t have that time to think about things, we can play a lot better and that happened today.”
Nobles scored the go-ahead run on an RBI double by Todd Wilson in the bottom of the fifth inning and that’s all Holtville needed with Owen Chandlee on the mound. Chandlee struck out four batters through six innings and did not allow an earned run in the 4-3 win.
“I was expected to start this game but I was so nervous,” Chandlee said. “I was shaking and getting in my head a little too much. Everyone had faith in me though and we came out with two ‘W’s tonight so you can’t ask for more than that.”
Elmore County will need to sweep Booker T. Washington this week for a chance to make the playoffs but can finish as high as just second in the area standings. The Panthers will need Handley or Holtville to get a sweep in the other series.
“We’ve done all we can do now,” Byrd said. “It’s out of our control and that can be tough to handle. You feel a lot better when you can control your own destiny.”
After the two losses Friday, the Panthers had a quick turnaround and had to face B.B. Comer on Saturday. Elmore County responded well and got a 12-1 victory to prepare for a run at the postseason.
“That’s the kind of game that made me feel really good,” Byrd said. “We still have to finish the season the right way and prepare like we’re in the playoffs just in case we do get that chance.”