AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific rode the powerful bat of true freshman Brice Cutspec to a 6-3, 4-1 doubleheader sweep over No. 16-ranked Point Loma Nazarene Saturday evening, clinching the Golden State Athletic Conference championship and setting the program’s single-season wins record with 4 regular-season games remaining. Cutspec answered every Point Loma Nazarene score with a home run, lifting the Cougars to come-from-behind wins in both games.
“This is the best I’ve ever hit in my life,” said Cutspec. “I hit two, but then three in one game was crazy. I was just trying to stay focused, not try to change anything and just stay inside the ball. To clinch (the conference title) today was sweet.”
The Cougars, who had already clinched a share of their ninth GSAC title, extended their lead over second-place Point Loma Nazarene to 8 games and secured home-field advantage for the NAIA Region II Playoffs. In addition, Azusa Pacific extended its program-record winning streak to 21 straight games.
“I told the guys to enjoy this tonight and tomorrow, because they deserve it,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “I was very impressed with how we handled the second game. When we won that first game and knowing that we had clinched it, I was tired, and I wasn’t even playing, but the guys got it out of their head and said, ‘we’ve gotta win this series.’ That became their focus, and it was really important for them to win this game.”
In the first game, Point Loma Nazarene struck first, scoring single runs on back-to-back 1-out hits from Jeff Fox and Andy Reilly, but Azusa Pacific starter Jonny Bravo froze Mike Reynolds with a 1-2 curveball, and Stephen Vogt caught Reilly stealing to end the Sea Lion threat. Vogt’s throw beat Reilly to second base by a large enough margin that Reilly had time to stop, turn around and get caught in a rundown between first and second before shortstop Matt Venegas took the final throw from Cutspec and made the tag to end the inning.
Grant Beyer was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, Vogt drew a walk and Beyer scored on a pair of wild pitches to cut Point Loma Nazarene’s lead to 2-1, but the next 2 Cougars flied out before Cutspec drilled a line drive over the right field fence for his first home run of the day, giving Azusa Pacific a 3-2 lead.
Fox tied the game at 3-3 in the top of the sixth inning with his groundout to first base that scored Alex Cameron, who led off the frame with a double to center field. With runners on second and third and only 1 out, Bravo got Reynolds to ground out weakly to first, then struck out Travis Wiley to end the threat on a bizarre foul tip. Bravo’s 2-2 fastball came in high and tight, but as Wiley lifted his hands out of the way, the ball glanced off the bottom of the handle and into Vogt’s glove for the third out.
In the bottom of the sixth, Cutspec stepped to the plate with 2 outs, and he hammered his second home run of the game with a towering shot to right that put the Cougars up by a 4-3 margin. Cutspec went deep to the opposite field for his third home run of the game, a solo shot to left field, but not before Scott Hodsdon hammered a 2-2 pitch to left-center field with 1 out in the inning. Hodsdon, who 1 pitch earlier had smoked a ball just inches foul down the left field line, stepped back into the box and drove the next pitch out of the park for his 20th home run of the season. The shot was Hodsdon’s 200th career hit, and it moved him into third in career home runs (34) on the Cougar career charts.
Bravo improved to 8-0 with the win, finishing with 8 strikeouts in 7 innings, and Hodsdon struck out a pair in a perfect ninth inning to pick up his fifth save of the season.
Hodsdon started the second game on the mound, and he recorded 4 strikeouts in the first 2 innings, giving him a 9-batter stretch between the games in which he struck out 6. Hodsdon also threw a scoreless third inning, but he loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the fourth with the game still deadlocked in a scoreless tie. The senior righthander got Kevin Campbell to ground into a double play, but Reilly scored from third on the play to snap Hodsdon’s 34 consecutive scoreless innings streak. Hodsdon got Drew Bernhard to line out to end the threat with just a 1-0 deficit.
“I was upset, but I tried to put it out of my mind,” said Hodsdon. “Gagné threw well and with the way Brice had been hitting the ball, it helped out a lot to help me get refocused. In that kind of a situation, you have to get it out of your mind as fast as you can.”
Vogt led off the bottom of the fourth inning with a single to right, the second of 3 hits in the game for the senior catcher. Point Loma Nazarene southpaw Jared Eskew retired the next 2 batters to bring Cutspec back to the plate with a man on and 2 outs, and the freshman delivered again, stroking the game-winning home run, another towering shot to right field that gave the Cougars a 2-1 advantage.
James O’Neill crushed an 0-1 offering off the right-center field wall with 1 out in the bottom of the fifth inning, and Venegas brought him home with a 2-out RBI single up the middle. After Vogt singled down the right field line, Hodsdon pushed an RBI single through the right side to score Venegas and give Azusa Pacific a 4-1 lead.
“Those guys (Hodsdon and Vogt) are great leaders, and they’re some of the best leaders I’ve ever played with,” said Cutspec. “On and off the field, they’re great guys and great players. They go hard all day long, no matter what they’re doing in life. They’re just awesome guys. Playing with them and being a part of that is amazing. You couldn’t ask for more as a freshman.”
Christian Gagné retired 6 of the 7 batters he faced in 2 scoreless innings of relief, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis picked up the save with a scoreless seventh. The Cougar bullpen was added by a pair of spectacular defensive plays from senior second baseman Johnny Soberal, who made a diving stop of a 1-hop rocket in the top of the fifth, then recorded the second out in the seventh when he made a running back-handed stop of a grounder up the middle, then changed direction and dove to second to force out the runner for the second out before Jesse Gill lined out to a leaping Venegas at shortstop to complete the sweep.
“I’m really happy for our seniors,” said Svagdis. “Soberal made some great plays defensively that won us the ballgame today, and they’ve all worked hard. They’ve met our expectations as a coaching staff in terms of being the people we asked them to be off the field. They were challenged a lot because we weren’t very successful for a few years, but it’s nice to see good things happen to good guys like that, especially when they’re seniors.”
Cutspec and Hodsdon were the only Cougars to hit safely in both games of the twinbill, and both teams were flawless in the field, posting an error-free day in the doubleheader.
“The second game was to take the series, and we just did the best we could to stay focused,” said Hodsdon. “Our team does a great job of staying focused, and we knew we had to take care of business and get it done.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 41-4 overall, 29-3 in GSAC play, and the Cougars are just the second squad in program history to record 40 wins in a single season.
“We can celebrate this weekend, but on Monday it’s back to business,” said Hodsdon. “I’m so proud of the guys, especially the seniors who have been through so much the past few years, and I’m just really happy for everyone. I knew we had a great team coming in, and I was excited for this season.”
In addition, Azusa Pacific has won 18 straight GSAC games and extended its lead over the second-place Sea Lions to 8 games. Point Loma Nazarene drops to 27-14 on the season and 21-11 in conference play, and the Sea Lions hold just a 1-game lead over Concordia and California Baptist in the GSAC standings. Azusa Pacific hosts Concordia for a midweek series with 3 p.m. contests on Wednesday and Thursday, April 25 and 26, before visiting California Baptist in a season-ending doubleheader on Saturday, April 28.