The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets wrapped up the outright American Southwest Conference baseball regular season championship and will host one of the two four-team brackets that comprise the opening round of the American Southwest Conference baseball championship tournament, thanks to Saturday's doubleheader sweep of the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys and East Texas Baptist's pair of losses to Louisiana College.
The Yellow Jackets rallied with six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to stun the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys, 12-11, in Game 1 of Saturday's doubleheader, then cruised to a 9-3 victory in the nightcap. Meanwhile, East Texas Baptist fell to Louisiana College, 7-3 and 3-2.
Therefore, heading into Sunday's final day of regular season action — with the only game being Hardin-Simmons (18-19, 12-9) visiting Howard Payne at 1:30 p.m. — the Yellow Jackets (25-14, 16-4) lead second-place Concordia (29-10, 15-6), now in line to host the second four-team bracket, and third-place East Texas Baptist (28-12, 17-7) by a game and a half, which secures the title.
In Saturday action, Howard Payne trailed Hardin-Simmons by an 11-6 margin heading into the bottom of the seventh and final inning of Game 1.
David Groves started the frame with a walk and Jacob Salazar was hit by a pitch with one out. Jacob Rodriguez followed with a two-RBI double to left field, reducing the Cowboys' advantage to 11-8. Noah Coronado then singled to right field, which set the stage for the ASC's record holder for triples in a single season — Noah Payne — who launched Howard Payne's third home run of the game, a tying three-run blast over the left field wall that evened the score at 11.
With two outs, Ty McCain was able to prolong the seventh inning by reaching on an error. Pinch-runner Keldon Crawford was able to move to second base on a passed ball, then Rylee McGee delivered the game-winning RBI single to left field, as Crawford scored to complete the improbable comeback.
The Yellow Jackets finished with 10 hits — two each by Payne and Rodriguez, who both homered and drove in three runs; one by Salazar, who homered and plated four runners; a hit and an RBI from McGee; and base hits from Coronado, McCain, Joshua Gerig, and Nolyn Box.
The HPU pitching staff yielded 18 hits but Xavier Haines was able to pick up the win, tossing 1.1 innings of scoreless relief with one hit allowed and one strikeout.
Howard Payne surrendered four runs in the first inning, but answered with four in the second to draw even. Groves reached on a one-out walk, Box followed with a single, then Salazar unleashed a three-run home run to left field. Moments later, Rodriguez also left the yard with a solo shot, knotting the score at 4.
Hardin-Simmons wasted little time regaining the lead, which it stretched to 9-4 in the top of the fifth inning. In the bottom of the fifth, the Yellow Jackets chalked up two more runs as a bases-loaded walk by Salazar plated Seth Heupel, running after R.J. Roberts drew a free pass, and later Groves, who reached on a fielder's choice, came home on a passed ball.
The Cowboys responded with two more runs in the sixth, pushing the lead to 11-6, but it proved to not be enough.
In Game 2, the Yellow Jackets opened a 3-0 advantage in the first inning and never looked back. HPU increased the cushion to 5-1 in the third, 8-1 in the fourth and scored its final run in the fifth.
Howard Payne's 14-hit onslaught featured three from Box, who homered and drove in five, along with three from Gerig, who knocked in a run. Roberts, Salazar and Cliff Lunceford contributed two hits apiece, and McGee and Groves tallied one each.
On the mound, Chandler Clark picked up the win, working five innings and allowing one run on seven hits with two strikeouts. Graham White and Seth Owen combined on three innings of scoreless relief, and Brenden Clanton worked the ninth.