AZUSA, Calif. -- As Greg Swain watched from the press box above the Azusa Pacific dugout, Scott Hodsdon fired strike three past the bat of Concordia’s Brent Dohling, his 13th strikeout in just over 24 hours, sending the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Cougars to the NAIA World Series for the first time since Swain’s 1984 Cougars represented Azusa Pacific at the NAIA’s baseball championship tournament in Lewiston, Idaho. Hodsdon fired 2 perfect innings to close out both games, a 7-3 afternoon victory that forced a winner-take-all championship game also won by the Cougars by a 9-5 margin.
“Coach came to me in the seventh inning and asked if I wanted to go 7 and 8, but I told him I wanted to go 8-9 and finish it,” said Hodsdon. “I’m just so happy for the team. It’s a great team win, and I’m just thankful to God that he gave me this ability and the team the ability to do what we do and take care of business every day.”
Swain, whose program single-season records for wins, complete games, starts and innings pitched may never be touched, will at the very least be joined in Azusa Pacific baseball history by a complete team performance led by the Cougars’ senior righthander. Hodsdon’s gutty relief performances followed his complete-game 4-hit shutout over Biola less than 24 hours earlier that sent the Cougars to an NAIA Region II championship rematch with the same Concordia squad that handed Azusa Pacific a humbling 11-4 defeat in Wednesday’s opening game.
“I’ve got another 9 in me,” said Hodsdon. “I’m ready. I don’t really feel anything right now, and I was just so happy to be out there.”
Stephen Vogt collected yet another program record, this time breaking the single-season hits record previously held by Swain’s teammate Rob Amble, the 1984 NAIA Player of the Year. Vogt walked in each of his first 2 at-bats in the championship game before grounding a 2-out single through the left side to drive in a pair of runs and give the Cougars a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning.
“It’s definitely an honor to hold records here,” said Vogt, who holds Cougar career records in hits, doubles, total bases, walks, RBIs and batting average. “I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, I deserve this.’ I don’t. It’s an honor and it’s a testament to our lineup. I’ve gotten a lot of at-bats because everyone’s hitting. We all get 4 to 5 at-bats every game, so I get more opportunities.”
While Vogt and Hodsdon shared GSAC Player of the Year honors, Thursday’s sweep over the defending NAIA Region II tournament champion Concordia was decidedly a team effort. Every Cougar that appeared at the plate either hit safely or scored in 1 of the 2 victories, and Azusa Pacific pitchers Ryan Zaft and Jonny Bravo delivered strong starts to get the Cougars into the late innings of both games with the lead intact.
“Five years ago, Mike Price and I sat down and put a vision for this program together, and in 5 years, we said we wanted to be at the World Series,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis.
Azusa Pacific, which claimed its ninth GSAC title this season, had not won a postseason game since 2001, and the Cougars were making their first postseason appearance since 2003, Svagdis’ first season as the head coach.
“I didn’t think it was going to take a drought and then in the fifth year everything happened,” said Svagdis. “I expected to be in the playoffs every year, and we’d learn how to win in the playoffs, but Price got us in the right frame of mind, getting us focused and putting a plan together. I remember seeing it on my desk, in the fifth year to be a World Series team. You write those things down and you work towards them, but it wasn’t the plan that it would take several years of not being in the playoffs.”
Bravo, who tossed a 7-inning complete-game victory over Point Loma Nazarene Tuesday afternoon, came back to start the nightcap and retired 9 of the first 10 batters he faced. He got a glove on Keoni Ruth’s hard grounder back up the middle in the second inning, collected it several feet towards the first-base line and threw Ruth out, the first of 3 stellar defensive plays by the sophomore lefthander. In the third inning, he stabbed another hard grounder off the bat of Justin Bird, flipping it to first to start a perfect 1-2-3 inning. After surrendering a leadoff infield single to Dohling, Bravo made a diving catch of Brandon Kawal’s sacrifice bunt attempt towards the first-base line, keeping Dohling at first in his fourth straight shutout inning to start the game.
“I didn’t have much, but I wanted to give 100 percent and everything I had,” said Bravo. “Five innings was all I had. This was a great team effort – everyone contributed, and the seniors stepped it up. That’s all you can ask for.”
The Eagles finally got on the scoreboard on Daniel Robertson’s 2-run single to center with 1 out in the fifth inning, before Bravo got Dohling to ground into a double play to keep the Cougars’ lead at 4-2 heading into the bottom of the fifth. Azusa Pacific answered Concordia’s 2 runs with a pair on Stephen Kohatsu’s 2-run, 1-out single to center that pushed the Azusa Pacific cushion back to 4 runs at 6-2.
With 1 out in the top of the sixth, Ruth and Gregg Davidson hit back-to-back RBI doubles to cut the lead to 6-4, and Justin Bird cut the Cougar advantage to a single run at 6-5 with a 2-out RBI single to center. After a leadoff groundout to start the bottom of the sixth inning, Azusa Pacific watched Concordia put its season on the left arm of GSAC Pitcher of the Year Enrique Lechuga, who threw 4 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Cougars in yesterday’s 11-4 win.
Lechuga retired 4 of the first 5 batters he faced, but with 2 outs in the bottom of the seventh, surrendered an unearned run on an error, then served up a full-count, 2-run double down the left field line to All-GSAC shortstop Matt Venegas, who also led off the bottom of the first with a full-count solo home run. Venegas’ double gave the Cougars a 9-5 lead heading into the eighth inning, and Hodsdon took care of the rest, striking out 3 of the 6 Eagles he faced, including a blistering fastball on the outside corner that sent Nathan Dean down looking to lead off Concordia’s ninth inning.
“We had a good feeling coming into today, and we knew we weren’t out of it by any means,” said Vogt. “This feels so good. Coach came up to me before the game and told me I had to keep the guys up and not let us feel like we were ever out of it. The difference between this team and past teams is we really are never out of it. We really showed that today. We had some adversity today, but we handled it, we were able to pull through and I think that’s a testament to senior leadership.”
Venegas, Kohatsu and freshman All-GSAC first baseman Brice Cutspec each tallied 3 hits, accounting for three-fourths of the Cougars’ 12-hit attack. Venegas also made back-to-back stops of hard-hit grounders up the middle in the top of the fourth inning, including a diving backhand stop for the third out of the inning.
Concordia starter Mike Woolery, who struck out 13 in 7 innings of work in the Eagles’ 11-2 Tuesday win over California Baptist, lasted just 1 inning before giving way to Erik Reyes, who worked a pair of scoreless innings before surrendering a pair of runs each in both the fourth and fifth innings.
In the first game of the day, Zaft battled back from a tough first inning in which he gave up a leadoff home run to Robertson and a sacrifice fly that gave Concordia a 2-0 lead to start the game. Over the next 6 innings, the junior righthander gave up just 2 hits before Dohling and Kawal led off the eighth with back-to-back singles. With runners on first and second, Zaft handed the ball off to Hodsdon, who retired 6 straight batters on just 22 pitches to earn his sixth save of the season.
“I wanted this one more than anything,” said Zaft. “I knew we had to get out there and get through this first one. When I get in trouble, it just fires me up. I don’t want to give anything up, and I definitely try not to, but I just battle out of it and once I get through it, I get into a rhythm. My goal is to get that rhythm started.”
Trailing 2-0, Hodsdon led off the bottom of the second with a double and advanced to third on a groundout to second base. Cutspec lifted a fly ball to deep left-center, but Robertson made an acrobatic jumping catch as he crashed into the wall and came off the wall firing the throw back into the infield, and Hodsdon remained at third. Stephen Gillette picked up the senior with an opposite-field home run, a 2-run line drive that cleared the fence in right center that tied the game at 2-2.
In the bottom of the fifth, Galen Komo cashed in a run on an 1-out infield single to shortstop with runners on second and third, and Vogt drove in another with a double down the right field line that gave Azusa Pacific a 4-2 lead.
Kawal answered with a leadoff blast down the left field line to cut the lead to 4-3 in the top of the sixth, but the Cougars came right back to cash in on a pair of walks in the bottom of the sixth when Komo drilled Concordia starter Andrew Soto’s 2-2 offering over a shallow outfield to straightaway center, scoring a pair of 2-out runs to give the Cougars a 6-3 lead. Azusa Pacific added an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh on Venegas’ 2-out RBI single.
Komo, Grant Beyer and Kirk Nieuwenhuis each finished with 2 hits in the first game of the afternoon, helping set up the evening championship matchup.
The Cougars’ regional championship sets up an NAIA super regional 3-game series next week against the winner of this weekend’s Region I tournament, although Azusa Pacific’s No. 2 ranking in this week’s final coaches poll assures the Cougars an at-large bid to the NAIA World Series, which takes place from May 25-June 1 in Lewiston. Azusa Pacific will host the super regional series.
With the sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 49-6 on the season, putting the Cougars within a game of reaching the 50-win mark for the first time in program history. Concordia finishes the season 31-19 overall.
Final tournament leaders, team statistics and game box scores are available at the NAIA Region II Baseball Playoffs Tournament Central page located under the Region II portion of the NAIA’s official website, www.naia.org.
On his 4 seniors (Stephen Vogt, Scott Hodsdon, Johnny Soberal and Brad Boekestein)
“Those guys went through some tough times early on. We asked them to do and be a certain way. We asked them to do those things, and they had a lot of people that were telling them the right direction to go in, and I’m just proud of them. I’m really proud of those seniors, and I’m really excited for them that they get a chance to keep playing. It means a lot. I really love those guys, I have a lot of respect for them and I’m really excited for them.”
“The chemistry on this team is awesome. I’ve never been on a team like this. We all hang out on and off the field. We have some laughs, but when it’s time to be serious, we’re serious.”
“We take care of it in the classroom, we take care of it with our peers, we take care of it with faculty and staff and we definitely take care of it on the field. Coach has just done a great job with molding our team, getting that right mentality for us to take care of things the right way.”
“The success we’ve had and what we do off the field is great for the program, and I know it will continue to be a great program. Coach is going to do great things.”
“Everyone’s buying into the process and obviously it paid off for us. We just work hard and get it done.”