HYRUM — Bottom of the seventh inning, two outs, down 4-2, runners on first and third.
All that the Region 12 champion Mountain Crest Mustangs needed was a chance. A hit, walk, error, something to survive and advance in the 4A UHSAA Baseball Championships.
Tooele’s pitcher Jaxson Miner stared down Tadon Burbank, the Region 12 co-MVP, ready to throw the first pitch of the at-bat — then a pickoff attempt at first. The throw came so quick, disguised well and aided by the all-encompasing tension, that the runner, Taylor Bitton, still had his heels in the dirt by the time the ball had reached the first baseman’s glove. Bitton tried to dive back but was tagged with more than a foot remaining between him and safety.
Game over. Title run over. Season over.
As the Buffaloes rushed the field with victory in hand, the Mustangs held their heads in their hands, barely able to register what just happened and reeling with disbelief.
“I don’t even know what happened,” MC head coach Steve Hansen said. “It looked to me as though he was going home, our runners were going off and all of the sudden he threw over, then celebration.”
As the shock set in from that play, what-ifs circled the field from the losing side. What if they got a few more hits when it counted? What if they hadn’t let Tooele slowly accumulate a 4-0 lead, necessitating a four-run comeback attempt in the bottom of the seventh? And, just as significant, what if they hadn’t lost the first game of the day which stuck them in a position to be eliminated on day one in the first place?
Despite what the final score of 4-1, the Mustangs (16-10) were a few hair breadths away from a game one victory against Orem, a game Hansen said “we should have won.” It had all the feel of a back-and-forth basketball or football contest, just without the volume scoring.
Both sides combined for 13 hits — seven for the Tigers, six for the Mustangs — and 10 errors that conceded runners and extra bases to add to the tension. Multiple times the two teams got guys in scoring position only to botch the chance away, holding the game at a 1-1 tie from the bottom of the fourth into an extra inning.
Two huge chances came and went for the Mustangs to end the deadlock, the first coming in the fifth. Mountain Crest loaded the bases with two outs but Ethan Wilson popped a fly ball to left field for an easy out to end the inning. Then in the seventh and a chance to walk off and advance, an interference call at first on Bitton erased a base hit and sent Caden Jones back to first base whereas he would have been on third base with zero outs. Instead, Bitton had to hike back to the dugout and two of the next three batters went down on fly balls.
“We had our chances with guys on base and we just didn’t come up with a big hit,” Hansen said. “Seems like that’s what’s been happening to us this year. If we come up with a couple of big hits maybe that game goes another way.”
With hits not coming in the right places, the defense had to step up. Unfortunately, the normally excellent pitching and fielding went bottoms up at times, with the Mustangs committing six errors.
“You can’t give them that many outs in a game,” Hansen said. “It’s going to cost you sooner or later and it did.”
One of those errors came during the decisive top of the eighth where the Tigers got three runs. Two of those came directly off an overthrow of first base.
Losing the first game had no small impact on game two of the day.
“We had a hangover from the first game,” Hansen said. “We definitely didn’t have the energy to go and battle for the last game of the season.”
Tooele took full advantage of the Mustangs apathy early on, scoring a run in four of the first five innings to slowly increase its cushion and build what ultimately became an insurmountable lead. And again, a lack of hits when it counted spelled doom for Mountain Crest.
Even though the Mustangs ended the season almost exactly as they did last year with two early losses in the postseason as a four seed, the program is back on its way to the same one that claimed 12 region titles, two state championships and a second place finish from 1999 to 2015.
“Right now it hurts, but we’ve done a lot of good things this season,” Hansen said. “And we’re going to get to work next week and we’ll be ready to go defending our region title and also go compete with the other teams in the state. We found out that we’ve got to do more things to compete with other teams in the state.”
Making its third baseball playoff appearance in its three short years of existence, Ridgeline once again lost in the first round. And like last season, the Riverhawks (12-13) also lost in the second game too, getting sent home on day one for the second straight year with losses to Spanish Fork 3-2 and Snow Canyon 4-2.
The opening game, the loss to one seed Spanish Fork, Ridgeline head coach Paul Bowler said “was a great baseball game.” One where his side performed almost good enough.
“We played pretty well, aside from losing the game I was pretty happy with how we played and competed,” Bowler said. “The pitching was good. The hitting was good, defense was pretty good.”
In two consecutive innings, the Riverhawks had chances to score and got solid contact at the plate. But a pair of highlight-worthy diving grabs by the Dons’ left fielder and second baseman took away what Bowler said were otherwise good, hard hits where his guys made good plays, but the opponent just did better.
Game two saw the Riverhawks give up an early 1-0 lead in the first by allowing three runs in the second and another in the third. Ridgeline scored a run in the seventh to try and keep the game going, but only managed the one and not the three needed to stay alive.
“When you give them a couple of free bases and then you give up a couple of hits you get yourself in a little bit of a hole,” Bowler said. “We fell just a little bit short.”
The Wolves finished their season on a five-game losing streak including two playoff losses on Saturday en route to a day one elimination from the postseason. Green Canyon (16-10) scored just two combined runs, first getting shut out by Lehi 2-0 and then putting up a pair late against Cedar City to turn a 3-0 game into an interesting contest, but still eventual defeat.
Green Canyon got a fair amount of production from its pitching for the day, with just the five runs allowed on seven total hits. Dewey Panter and Payton Jones, the two Wolves on the mound Saturday, also combined for seven strikeouts and only four walks.
Batting with men on base proved to be the challenge GC couldn’t overcome. Against Lehi, the Wolves simply couldn’t get hits with just three the whole game. But facing the Redmen, seven hits came off the bats of the Wolves including a triple by Alex Atkinson, though it came to no avail as those hits produced just two scores.