AZUSA, Calif. -- If you like late-inning heroics, you definitely don’t want to leave early from a Saturday GSAC doubleheader in Azusa. For the third straight Saturday home doubleheader, the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific earned a valuable sweep with game-winning runs in its final at-bat of both games. Sophomore Kirk Nieuwenhuis coaxed a tailing fly ball over the left field fence for a game-winning 3-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, lifting the Cougars to a 6-5, 8-5 doubleheader sweep over California Baptist Saturday afternoon.
“I felt like our guys really played tough,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “It seemed like we were down or tied for most of both games, and our guys just hung in there. I was really proud of the way they played.”
The sweep gives Azusa Pacific its 36th 20-win season in the 42-year program history, and the Cougars did it in record time, becoming just the third team in Azusa Pacific history to reach the 20-win mark in just 23 games. The 1993 Cougars had a 5-2-1 start before reeling off a 16-game winning streak to hit the 20-win mark, and the 2001 squad went 15-3 before reaching 20 wins in the midst of a 9-game win streak. This year’s 20th win comes a full 2 weeks prior to the March 24 date on the calendar that both previous Cougar squads accomplished in achieving the identical win total.
Neither victory came easy, as Robert Lundy’s pinch-hit 2-run home run for California Baptist in the top of the eighth inning of the first game put the Cougars in a 5-3 hole. However, Matt Venegas and Stephen Vogt each singled to set up Scott Hodsdon’s 1-out RBI single in the bottom of the eighth that scored Venegas to cut the lead to 5-4. Hodsdon advanced to second on the throw home, and Brice Cutspec drove in pinch-runner Rod Wilson with an RBI single through the left side that tied the game at 5-5 and put Hodsdon, the potential go-ahead run, just 90 feet from the lead. The last of Steve Goins’ 4 wild pitches brought Hodsdon across for the game-winning run, and Garrett Lebsock retired the Lancers in order in the top of the ninth, striking out the last 2, to seal the victory.
Venegas, Nieuwenhuis and Vogt combined for 7 of the Cougars’ 9 hits in the first game, with Vogt putting together a 3-for-4 performance to lead the way. Nieuwenhuis blasted a 2-run home run over the right-field fence in the bottom of the third, giving Azusa Pacific a 3-1 lead. California Baptist answered with single runs in the sixth and seventh innings on Jordan Lowe’s pinch-hit solo home run to lead off the sixth and Brandon Peters’ 2-out RBI single in the seventh.
Cougar starter Zach Pettikas scattered 3 runs on 6 hits in 6 2/3 innings. Lebsock tossed 2 1/3 innings to pick up the victory in relief. Through the first 7 innings, Goins surrendered just 3 runs on 5 hits while striking out 7 before the 3-run eighth inning. Goins took the complete-game loss for the Lancers.
California Baptist drew first blood in Game 2 of the twinbill, when Lundy’s 1-out single to left gave the Lancers an early 1-0 lead, but Azusa Pacific’s nightcap starter Ryan Zaft worked his way out of trouble, striking out Sean Kelley and inducing an inning-ending groundout to limit the damage to just the single run. The Cougars got the run right back after Hodsdon led off the bottom of the second with a single, stole second and scored on the first of Stephen Kohatsu’s 3 hits in the game. With no outs and runners on first and second, California Baptist starter Bobby Kelley retired the next 3 batters to escape the inning with a 1-1 tie.
Aaron Seuss drilled a 2-run shot to left, giving the Lancers a 3-1 lead in the third, but Venegas crushed a full-count mistake from Kelley over the left-field fence to lead off the Cougar half of the third and cut the lead to 3-2. Azusa Pacific sent 10 batters to the plate in the inning, and Hodsdon and Kohatsu each knocked RBI singles in the inning to give the Cougars a 5-3 lead.
California Baptist answered again, as Brandon Peters’ 2-out RBI single cut the lead to 5-4, and Nieuwenhuis’ bullet from center would have made for a close play on Jordan Monroe at third base, but it skipped off Monroe past Hodsdon at third, allowing Monroe to score and tie the game at 5-5. Lebsock came on again in relief to get the final out of the inning, and he threw 2 more scoreless innings to set up the Cougars’ sixth-inning heroics.
“I think it’s important to recognize that California Baptist is a really good team, and all the teams in our conference are really competitive,” said Svagdis. “We knew we would have our hands full today, and I thought it was a big day for us to show ourselves that we can compete at this level consistently. To come out and play a really good offensive team like that when we were down a pitcher was big for us.”
Galen Komo drew a leadoff walk to start the bottom of the sixth, and Venegas was hit by pitch to bring up Nieuwenhuis. California Baptist countered with a pitching change, replacing Chilly Ronquillo with Brad Simmons, who served up Nieuwenhuis’ game-winning home run.
“They brought in a new guy for the middle of the lineup, and I was just trying to hit the ball hard in play to get Vogt and Scott and all the rest of the guys up,” said Nieuwenhuis, who now has 5 home runs on the season for a squad that has already hit 40 round-trippers to surpass its team home run totals for each of the past 2 seasons. “I got a good pitch and was able to hit it out.”
Hodsdon picked up the save, retiring Garrett Gipe on a ground ball to short before striking out the final 2 Lancers to earn his first save of the season.
“Scott closing out that game for us was big, and even though Zaft wasn’t at his best, he pitched tough and kept giving us a chance to win,” said Svagdis. “He pitched out of some jams and really helped us get our offense going.”
Hodsdon and Kohatsu led the Cougar offense with 3 hits apiece, and Vogt added a base hit and was hit by pitch, allowing him to reach base at least twice for the 17th straight game. Vogt’s combined 4-for-7 afternoon raised his season batting average to .506, while his on-base percentage improved to an eye-popping .615. The Cougars now have 8 regulars batting .340 or better, including a trio of .400 hitters.
With the sweep, the Cougars’ sixth weekend sweep in 7 Saturdays of action this season, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-3 overall, 13-3 in the GSAC, while California Baptist drops to 15-11 overall and 6-10 in GSAC play. The Cougars host Dixie State in non-conferenca action Monday and Tuesday night at 6 p.m. before visiting No. 15-ranked Concordia next Saturday for a St. Patrick’s Day doubleheader against the Eagles to wrap up the first half of the 36-game conference schedule.