COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific continued its record-setting 2007 campaign with a program-record 19th consecutive victory, defeating Vanguard 9-2 Thursday afternoon to claim at least a share of the Golden State Athletic Conference championship with 6 conference games remaining on the schedule. The previous program winning streak record belonged to the 1996 squad, which racked up an 18-game winning streak in the midst of a 32-14 campaign.
“Nothing has really changed for us,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “Every time we put the uniform on and step on the field, we go out to win. I don’t care who we’re playing, whether it’s the (Rancho Cucamonga) Quakes, the Yankees or Vanguard in the last time we’ll face them in a regular-season scenario. We need to play based upon the situation we’re given.”
Stephen Vogt, Azusa Pacific’s career RBI leader as of yesterday, drove in leadoff hitter Matt Venegas from third with a run-scoring groundout in the top of the first, and Ryan Zaft set the tone for the rest of the afternoon in the bottom of the first. After walking the leadoff batter and surrendering a 1-out single to left, Zaft induced an inning-ending double play to get out of the inning, and he went on to toss the Cougars’ first 9-inning complete-game victory of the season.
“I wanted this win bad, especially with a chance to sweep them like this on their field,” said Zaft. “We’re playing smart ball right now, and we know we’re going to keep on battling and we’re not going to give up. We’re a close team, and we love playing and trying to achieve our goals.”
Scott Hodsdon, hit in the helmet by a pitch in his first at-bat in the first inning, followed Vogt’s second-inning bases-loaded walk by drilling a first-pitch fastball off the top of the left field fence for a bases-clearing double that put the Cougars up, 5-0.
“It’s kind of tough coming back after getting hit in the head, but I just put it behind me, got re-focused and tried to do what I could with the bases loaded,” said Hodsdon. “I was happy I was able to put a good swing on the ball. I was actually thinking he would try to come fastball, and that’s what he gave to me. I tried to do a good job of putting it in play, and it worked out for us.”
Vanguard was able to get on base in 7 of its 9 turns at bat, but Zaft surrendered only 2 single runs in the fifth and seventh innings before the Cougar offense put the game away with a pair of 2-run innings in the eighth and ninth.
“Today’s game could have gotten ugly really fast, especially when Scotty got hit by a pitch after yesterday’s fiasco,” said Svagdis. “I think we’re getting stronger mentally. You know you have to keep level-headed and go out and play your game, and I think we did that today. Scotty got hit again, although I didn’t think it was intentional. It could be misconstrued as ‘here they go again,’ but our guys didn’t lose their composure.”
Vanguard’s first score came in the bottom of the fifth inning when Ethan Gentry grounded into a fielder’s choice to third, barely beating the double-play turn from second to keep the inning alive and score Keegan Freeman from third on the play. Zachary Leighton led off the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff double for the Lions, scoring on what began as a towering foul ball just in front of Azusa Pacific’s first-base dugout. However, with Zaft, catcher Vogt and Cougar first baseman Brice Cutspec all converging on the popup, Leighton tagged up at third and advanced home on the sacrifice fly after Zaft was able to hang on to the popup despite a vicious collision that left the Cougar trio on the ground in front of the dugout.
“I thought Zaft did a really nice job,” said Svagdis. “He allowed us to rest our bullpen an extra day, so you can’t say enough about his performance.”
With Azusa Pacific holding on to a 5-2 lead, Eddie Crespo knocked an RBI double down the left field line in the top of the eighth inning for the first of 2 Cougar runs in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, Shaun Lane brought Kirk Nieuwenhuis home with an RBI groundout to the right side, and Rod Wilson easily beat out a drag bunt that scored Cutspec from third for the final 9-2 margin.
Crespo, Cutspec and Venegas each collected 2 hits to lead the Cougar offense, and Nieuwenhuis reached base safely 5 times, dropping in a leadoff bunt single in the fifth and walking in each of his other 4 plate appearances. Vogt drew 3 walks and drove in a pair of runs for Azusa Pacific.
“Coach got us in the right mindset,” said Hodsdon. “We know the ball doesn’t travel too well here. Our hitters did a great job hitting line drives and keeping the ball on the ground and making things happen, and Zaft did a wonderful job. He threw a gem out there and let our offense do what we do.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 39-4 overall, 27-3 in GSAC play, putting the Cougars within 1 victory of becoming just the second squad in program history to record 40 wins in a single season. In addition, the Cougars extended their conference winning streak to 16 games and maintained their 6-game lead over second-place Point Loma Nazarene, a 16-5 winner over San Diego Christian this afternoon. Vanguard drops to 20-19 on the season and 15-15 in conference play, dropping the Lions into sixth place in the GSAC standings. Azusa Pacific hosts No. 16-ranked Point Loma Nazarene for a noon doubleheader on Saturday, April 21, with a chance to secure home-field advantage in the upcoming NAIA Region II Playoffs.