AZUSA, Calif. -- An intermittent wind might have aided a fly ball or 2 leaving the field, but the 10 free bases issued to the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific certainly didn’t help unranked Vanguard mount a serious threat to the Cougars’ program-record 18-game winning streak. Scott Hodsdon and Stephen Gillette each slammed a pair of home runs to put Azusa Pacific within 1 game of completing a 4-game season sweep over the Lions with a 16-8 victory Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a great group of guys, and I just love being a part of this great season,” said Hodsdon. “Coming into the fall, we knew we had a lot of great talent, it was just a matter of putting it together, and we’ve done a good job of that and been successful.”
After winning its past 9 games by a margin of at least 4 runs or more, Wednesday’s contest hardly looked like a blowout from the outset. Luke Iverson led off the game with a home run that carried just barely over the right-center field wall to give Vanguard a 1-0 lead, but the Cougars answered with 5 runs in the bottom of the first and 3 more on Hodsdon’s first home run, a pop fly that carried out over the right field fence that gave the Cougars an 8-1 lead.
“Scott had the good fortune of the wind, just like their guy did in the first inning,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “If you got it up to the right side today, it was traveling.”
The Lions batted around in the top of the third, scoring 5 runs to cut the lead to 8-6, then posted 2 more to knot the game at 8-8 in the top of the fourth inning. The tie didn’t last long, as Hodsdon crushed his second shot of the game over the residential buildings beyond the left field fence to give the Cougars a 9-8 lead, and Azusa Pacific scored in each of its remaining at-bats to pull away.
Hodsdon now has a team-high 19 home runs on the season, and with over half the game remaining, might have had a shot at his 20th had he not been drilled in both of his final at-bats, by Vanguard relievers Christopher Carls with a 1-2 count in the seventh inning and Dustin Jones on an 0-1 pitch in the eighth inning. Vanguard walked 5 Cougar batters and hit another 5 in the game, giving the GSAC’s top offense 10 free baserunners, 5 of whom ended up scoring.
Stephen Vogt added another record to his standout Cougar career, becoming Azusa Pacific’s career RBI leader when his full-count, 2-out single to left in the bottom of the fifth scored Eddie Crespo from third to give the Cougars an 11-8 lead, part of 8 unanswered runs that broke an 8-8 tie. Vogt already holds Azusa Pacific career records for hits, walks, doubles and total bases, and he lifted his season batting average to .481 (76-for-158) with his 3-for-5 afternoon.
Gillette, who hit an RBI double to the left field fence in the Cougars’ 5-run first inning, sent both his home runs to the opposite field, including a leadoff fly ball to right center in the bottom of the fifth inning. In his next at-bat, Gillette drove an 0-1 offering from Richard Jessup deep to right for a 3-run shot, his 14th home run of the year and his third in the past 3 games.
Gillette, Hodsdon and Vogt each finished with 3 hits, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis collected 3 hits, as well.
“We’re definitely solid 1 through 9, and it’s really good to know that at anytime anyone can put the ball out of the park or make something happen,” said Hodsdon. “It’s good to know that, and it’s fun just being a part of it.”
After Cougar starter Brad Boekestein and reliever Garrett Lebsock surrendered the early Cougar lead in the first 4 innings, left-hander Zach Pettikas got Daniel Black to line into a double play to end a fifth inning that had Vanguard runners on first and second with 1 out. After a 1-out walk in the sixth, Pettikas retired the final 11 Lions batters to earn his seventh win of the season with 4 2/3 innings of hitless relief.
“I could tell the first guys were having a hard time hitting their spots, and I knew I needed to come hit my spots,” said Pettikas. “I have had trouble with (Vanguard) in the past, so it just made me focus even more, so I kept the ball down. I was a little rushed in the first inning and got a little lucky with that double play, but as the game went on, I felt a lot more comfortable.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 38-4 overall, 26-3 in GSAC play, and its 15-game conference winning streak has given the Cougars a 6-game lead over second-place Point Loma Nazarene in the GSAC standings with 7 games remaining in the regular season.
“This team just goes out and play, and that’s what I like about them,” said Svagdis. “It doesn’t matter what’s at stake, whether it’s a sweep or if we’re down 3 games, they just want to go out and win. They don’t care about today or what’s happened in the past, it’s like they come out every day with the attitude that they’ve got a game to play, and they just don’t want to lose it. These seniors have been through some tough times, and now they’ve made that jump, and I think they buy into the fact that it’s one game at a time. They understand that baseball is a fragile game, and they understand that every team we play from here on out is a tough team.”
Vanguard, now 20-18 overall and 15-14 in conference play, dropped into a fifth-place tie with Biola. The Cougars visit the Lions tomorrow to complete the midweek home-and-away series before hosting Point Loma Nazarene for a doubleheader on Saturday, April 21 at noon.