AZUSA, Calif. -- An extra-innings hit-and-run single through the right side of the infield from junior Matt Venegas lifted Azusa Pacific to an 8-7 victory over the NAIA’s No. 23-ranked Biola in the nightcap of a conference-opening doubleheader, following a 20-7 Cougar win in the opening game Saturday to kick off Golden State Athletic Conference play with a doubleheader sweep.
“I just tried to clear my head going into a situation like that,” said Venegas. “Coach called a hit-and-run, and I was just trying to execute it, and the ball went through the hole. I knew when I hit it that it was going through, and I was on cloud nine.”
The Cougars’ 9-0 start is the best in the 42-year history of the program, topping a 7-game win streak that kicked off the 2001 campaign.
“Today was a big test for us,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis, whose program had never before opened GSAC play against Biola. “Each weekend our intensity level has had to increase in order to be successful. If you expect to be good, you don’t want to split at home, I don’t care who you’re playing.”
Trailing 7-4 heading into the bottom of the seventh and final inning of the nightcap, Venegas doubled with 2 men aboard to cut Biola’s lead to 7-5, and senior Johnny Soberal brought the Cougars to within a run at 7-6 with a sacrifice fly to left that scored junior Eddie Crespo. Senior catcher Stephen Vogt was intentionally walked to bring up senior Scott Hodsdon with 2 outs and runners on the corners. Hodsdon, who was 0-for-3 with 3 strikeouts in the game to that point, brought Venegas home with the tying run on his RBI single to left. The Cougar rally ended on an infield popup, and the game headed to extra innings.
“Whenever I get intentionally walked, I take pleasure in it,” said Vogt, who entered the season with a career on-base percentage of .551. “That’s the greatest compliment you can give a player, but our entire lineup is solid. From 1 to 9, even 1 to 15 – we have 6 or 7 guys who can come off the bench who are solid. Not one of our hitters is an easy out, so it’s really exciting that we can throw any of our guys out there and they’re going to get it done.”
After sophomore Garrett Lebsock retired the Eagles in order in the top of the eighth inning, freshman Brice Cutspec led off the bottom of the eighth with a line drive single into right field. Cutspec advanced to second on a passed ball, and Crespo was intentionally walked after Biola reliever Steven Alexander struck out Cougar slugger Stephen Gillette. With the runners in motion, Venegas drilled Alexander’s offering to right field for the win.
“Obviously, when you’re down to Biola by 3 runs going into the bottom of the seventh, you’re thinking, ‘Well, I guess we didn’t get it done earlier in the game,’ but our guys battled offensively,” said Svagdis. “I felt like the attitude of the guys was really positive, that regardless of the score, there’s enough sticks in the lineup that we could get back in the game.”
Biola took a 5-2 lead on the strength of Bobby Slater’s fifth-inning grand slam, and the Eagles answered single Azusa Pacific runs in the fifth and sixth innings with single runs in the sixth and seventh to maintain the 3-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh. Venegas drew a 1-out bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the fifth to bring the Cougars to within 5-3, and Vogt’s solo homer to right in the sixth cut Biola’s lead to 6-4.
After surrendering a first-inning run, Cougar starter Jonny Bravo settled down to toss 3 scoreless innings before surrendering the fifth-inning grand slam that gave Biola a 5-2 lead. Junior Ryan Zaft came on to get out of the inning with a lineout and a double-play ball. He gave up single runs in the sixth and seventh before Lebsock picked up the perfect eighth inning to record the win, his second of the season.
Cutspec finished 3-for-4 in the game with his third home run of the year, Vogt was 2-for-3 with a home run and Venegas went 2-for-4 with 3 RBIs.
In the first game, Danny Morrow’s 2-run home run capped a 4-run third inning that gave Biola a 6-3 lead. Sophomore Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit the first of 2 sacrifice flies in the game to cut the lead to 6-4 in the bottom of the third, and Gillette’s solo home run to right center to lead off the bottom of the fourth sparked a 6-run Cougar inning that gave Azusa Pacific a 10-6 lead. Vogt and Hodsdon hit back-to-back home runs in a 5-run fifth that blew the game into a 15-6 lead, and Nieuwenhuis hit a 3-run shot to right in the sixth inning to give the Cougars an 18-6 advantage.
Junior southpaw Zach Pettikas threw 5 scoreless innings of relief, surrendering 1 run on just 2 hits while striking out 4 to pick up his second victory of the season. Lebsock tossed a scoreless ninth to finish the game.
“We have greater depth on the hill,” said Svagdis. “If you look at today, it was Pettikas, Lebsock and Zaft that actually won the ballgames for us. We can look at offense and all that jazz, but you have to have pitching. Our 2 starters went out and struggled a little bit in terms of getting behind hitters, but they battled.”
Vogt was 4-for-5 in the game with 4 RBIs, Nieuwenhuis finished with a team-high 5 RBIs and Cutspec, Gillette, Crespo and Venegas each collected a pair of hits in the Cougars’ 16-hit attack. On the day, Azusa Pacific batters drew a total of 22 walks, while the Cougar pitchers issued only 9 free passes to Eagles hitters.
“Our point of emphasis is to have a hitting plan every time we step to the plate based on who we’re playing and who’s pitching,” said Svagdis. “I think we’re older and more mature now, and I think they’re starting to implement it during games. They have a plan, and they’re doing a good job with it.”
It was only the latest in a series of incredible Azusa Pacific comebacks against the Eagles in the 2006-07 school year, a year in which the Cougars are 9-0 against the Eagles in head-to-head athletic competition. In the fall, Azusa Pacific men’s soccer trailed Biola 2-0 with just over 10 minutes remaining, only to tie the game with 13 seconds to play in regulation and eventually pull off the 3-2 overtime win. Azusa Pacific volleyball came from 2 games behind to beat the Eagles in La Mirada, then found themselves facing the losing end of a match point after falling behind by 2 games to the Eagles in the rematch in Azusa. The Cougars fought off the match point, winning Game 3 and eventually the match to pull off another 5-game win.
Less than 3 weeks ago, the Cougar men’s basketball team rallied from an 11-point deficit with 4 and a half minutes left, and a pair of DeMario Butler free throws with 5.1 seconds left sealed another Azusa Pacific comeback and kept the Cougar athletic program perfect against Biola for the year. Go ahead and add baseball’s final-inning rally to the list, along with a perfect 9-0 mark against the Eagles. The next meeting between the athletic programs will be the GSAC regular-season basketball finale for the Cougar men’s and women’s basketball teams, who are each ranked in the NAIA’s top 15.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 9-0 on the season, 2-0 in GSAC play, while Biola drops to 3-3 overall, 0-2 in GSAC. The Cougars continue conference play with a Valentine’s Day home doubleheader beginning at 3 p.m. with Fresno Pacific.