ABILENE — The Early Lady Horns are on the brink of elimination after dropping Game 1 of their Region I-3A bi-district softball playoff series to the Merkel Lady Badgers, 4-1, Thursday at Abilene Christian University.

Merkel (11-9) scored twice in the bottom of the first inning and added two more runs in the third. Despite collecting nine hits, Early (16-6) notched its only run in the fifth inning as the Lady Horns left 10 runners stranded on base.

The loss was the third in a row for Early, which dropped two games against Comanche on Friday to go from the unbeaten District 6-3A front-runner to the second playoff seed.

In the bottom of the first, Merkel’s Karlee Hunt reached and later scored on an RBI single to left field by Alexia Balvantin. Kaile Baker then knocked in Balvantin with an RBI single, which turned out to be all the offense Merkel needed.

In the fourth, Balvantin again reached on a single and was followed by a two-run home run to left field by Brookelyn Casper.

Early pitcher MaKayla DeLeon yielded four earned runs on seven hits with two walks and five strikeouts.

The Lady Horns’ run in the fifth was the result of a leadoff triple by Sydnee Shea, followed by a DeLeon RBI single over shortstop. Alexa Portillo later walked to put two runners on with one out, but Early was unable to cut further into Merkel’s lead with the potential tying run at the plate.

DeLeon finished with three hits to pace the Early offense, trailed by Shea with a pair and one each from Vance-Cady Gordon, Emily Rodriguez, Jenna Whitehead and Emma Loven. Portillo and Rodriguez drew walks for the Lady Horns.

Games 2 and 3, if needed, of the series, will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday at Abilene Christian University.