AZUSA, Calif. -- Baseball players tend to be creatures of habit, especially during a winning streak. Not Stephen Vogt. Azusa Pacific’s senior catcher, who already holds a handful of individual program records and has led the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Cougars to the program’s season wins record, a program-record win streak and the program’s ninth Golden State Athletic Conference championship, led the Cougars to their 22nd straight win, a 10-2 victory over Concordia Wednesday afternoon.
No, Vogt definitely changed things up prior to the Cougars’ Wednesday afternoon matchup with third-place Concordia. Tuesday evening, Vogt proposed to his girlfriend, Cougar women’s basketball player Alyssa Ferdaszewski, then promptly accomplished 4 things he had never done before in a 4-year career in which he’s done just about everything else.
“That was a big burden off my shoulders,” said Vogt. “It was nice to come out here and relax and know that’s over with. I got good pitches to hit, and I got lucky to put good swings on them. Scott’s been hot, so I’m seeing a lot of pitches hitting in front of him.”
For the first time in his 142-game career, Vogt collected 4 extra-base hits in a single game, including a career-high 3 doubles to go with his first career grand slam home run, and he drove in a career-high 6 RBIs. His fourth-inning slam was his 12th of the season, doubling his totals from each of the past 3 seasons and giving him 29 career home runs.
“All fall, Coach and I completely changed my swing,” said Vogt, a career .449 hitter who holds the Cougar career doubles record with 67. “We went back to basics, worked on staying behind the ball and it’s worked out for me. I’m a lot stronger and in a lot better shape, and with our lineup, I’m seeing better pitches to hit. That’s why Scott and I have such good numbers, because everyone’s been hitting so well. You can’t say enough about this team.”
While Vogt carried the Cougar offense, righthander Ryan Zaft turned his second strong start in less than a week, scattering 2 runs on 10 hits in a 7-inning effort. Despite allowing the leadoff batter to reach base for Concordia in 4 of the first 5 innings, Zaft only surrendered lone runs in the first 2 innings, then held the Eagles scoreless over the next 5 frames. It was the 12th time Azusa Pacific has held its opponent to 4 or fewer runs in the past 14 games.
Zaft kept the ball in the infield the entire first inning, but the Cougars’ only error and a wild pitch allowed leadoff man Daniel Robertson to score on Brandon Kawal’s groundout. The Cougars answered right away, as Matt Venegas hit an infield single to lead off the bottom of the first. Grant Beyer laid down a sacrifice bunt to move him into scoring position, and Vogt knocked a double down the left field line to tie the game at 1-1.
Brent Dohling led off the second with a line drive that sharply tailed away from a diving Kirk Nieuwenhuis, giving Dohling a leadoff triple. He scored on Gregg Davidson’s sacrifice fly, giving Concordia a 2-1 lead, but Zaft retired the next 2 Eagle batters to minimize the damage.
“When I get somebody on, I don’t want them to get around, so I start working a lot harder,” said Zaft. “Every start is really important to me right now. My main goal is to get back in shape, be strong and get to my peak level for the playoffs for whatever the team needs from me. This one meant a lot for me since Concordia is a top team, so I wanted to go out and prove what I could do.”
After a scoreless Cougar second, Robertson led off the third inning with a single up the middle. Robertson broke for second on a pitch in the dirt, but Vogt blocked the pitch, tracked it down quickly and gunned down Robertson at second for the first out. After a line out and a pair of Concordia hits, Vogt caught his second runner of the inning, nailing Matt Ross at second for the final out of the inning.
“I completely attribute (his defensive improvement) to his work ethic,” said Svagdis. “Vogt would have been as good as anyone just being himself, but in order for him personally to develop as a player, we would have done him a disservice if we didn’t go out and try to find an individual who could instruct him defensively. (Assistant coach) Justin Duarte was that guy – he was a catcher here, and he was a catcher in pro ball. He’s done a really good job with him defensively. His arm strength is better, his ability to block is better and they work hard every day.”
The bottom of the third was nearly a mirror-image of the first. Venegas led off with another single, Beyer sacrificed him to second and Vogt doubled to left center to score Venegas and tie the game at 2-2. After Scott Hodsdon singled, Nieuwenhuis drove in the game-winning run with a fielder’s choice grounder to second.
The Cougars loaded the bases for Vogt with 1 out in the bottom of the fourth inning, and he provided a towering fly ball that kept floating towards the deep center field fence before clearing the wall in right-center field for the grand slam that gave Azusa Pacific a commanding 7-2 lead.
“He actually called it today at about lunchtime,” said Svagdis. “He told me he was going to hit the ball out of the yard today, he was feeling so good.”
Vogt pounded another double to the left-center field fence with a man on in the bottom of the sixth, and Hodsdon walked to load the bases for Nieuwenhuis, who cashed in the opportunity for a run-scoring infield single that gave the Cougars an 8-2 lead.
“This is why I think Vogt is great, because he was willing to change his swing a little bit,” said Svagdis. “I told him he didn’t have to change his swing at all, because I’ll take .460 or .470 every year with 15 to 20 doubles. But after last year, we were trying to make the transition for him personally. Professional scouts like to see the ball hit out of the park, particularly from left-handed hitting catchers. We used to kid him about the way he used to hit. We called him ‘Fichiro,’ which stands for ‘fat Ichiro.’ He’s no longer that, because he’s staying behind the ball a lot longer. He had a really tough fall offensively, but he decided to stick with it. The other thing he’s showing is power to the opposite field, and hopefully the pro guys are recognizing it.”
Concordia reliever Erik Reyes, who entered the game to face Nieuwenhuis, struck out the next 3 batters to get out of the jam. In the bottom of the seventh, Eddie Crespo and Venegas led off with back-to-back singles, and Galen Komo’s sacrifice bunt that moved them both into scoring position. With first base open, Reyes intentionally walked Vogt to load the bases, and Nieuwenhuis hit a 2-out, 2-run single to right to give Azusa Pacific a 10-2 lead.
Niewuenhuis pitched the final 2 innings, and after loading the bases with 1 out in the eighth, retired the final 5 batters. Johnny Soberal’s diving stop of a grounder up the middle provided an exciting conclusion to the Cougars’ 8-run win.
Vogt was 1 of 6 Cougars with multiple hits, leading Azusa Pacific’s 18-hit attack. Crespo and Venegas each collected 3 hits, and Nieuwenhuis drove in the other 4 Cougar runs in a 2-hit performance.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 42-4 overall, 30-3 in GSAC play, extending the Cougars’ conference win streak to 19 games. Concordia drops to 28-14 on the season and 20-13 in conference play. The loss dropped the Eagles into fourth place in the GSAC standings, 1 game behind California Baptist and Point Loma Nazarene, who are currently tied for second place in the conference. Azusa Pacific hosts Concordia for another contest tomorrow evening at 5 p.m. before visiting California Baptist in a season-ending doubleheader on Saturday, April 28.