AZUSA, Calif. –- Ikaika Lester’s bases-clearing double highlighted a 5-run seventh inning and propelled the NAIA’s No. 1-ranked Lewis-Clark State to a 14-11 victory over No. 2 Azusa Pacific in the opening game of the NAIA West Coast Super Regional Wednesday night.
Azusa Pacific had just tied the game at 8-8 on Stephen Kohatsu’s first home run of the season, a solo shot over the left field fence to lead off the top of the seventh. However, the Warriors took advantage of some wildness from Cougar southpaw Brad Boekestein, who walked 3 of the 6 batters he faced in just a third of an inning. Zach Pettikas came out of the pen to inherit a bases-loaded, 1-out jam, and Lester promptly lined a 1-2 Pettikas offering into the right field corner to score Paul Martin, Beau Mills and Donnie Ecker, giving the Warriors an insurmountable 13-8 lead at the time.
The Cougars, though, did not go quietly into the night, scoring a run in the eighth and then 2 more on Scott Hodsdon’s school-record 23rd home run, a 2-run, 2-out laser in the ninth inning to pull Azusa Pacific to within a trio of runs. Following back-to-back singles by Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Brice Cutspec, Azusa Pacific had the tying run at the plate in the form of 17-home run hitter Stephen Gillette. However, Warrior closer Brian Parker struck out Gillette on 4 pitches to end the game and preserve the win with his team-leading eighth save.
“Anytime you have 18 hits and 11 runs against one of the better pitching staffs, you have to feel good,” said Cougar Head Coach Paul Svagdis, who admitted though he was disappointed that his team didn’t pull out the victory. “You have to play all facets of the game, and we were okay defensively, but not great. We pitched well in spots; it was just those 2 innings.”
Indeed, Azusa Pacific surrendered 12 runs in 2 innings, and the first 8 Warrior runs were all scored with 2 outs in the frame, including 7 in the second when L-C State rolled out to 7-0 lead. Mills, who is chasing the NAIA single-season record of 36 home runs, cranked his 32nd of the campaign, a 3-run arching shot to right field that put the Warriors up 4-0 at the time.
Svadgis admitted he was close to yanking starter Jonny Bravo, but he stuck with the All-GSAC hurler, who settled down, firing 3.2 innings of shutout baseball, collecting 6 of his 8 strikeouts in the process. Lester tagged Bravo for a 2-out solo home in the sixth to put the Warriors back up 8-7 before Kohatsu evened the game again the next inning.
“After the second inning I saw Jonny re-collect himself mentally,” said Svagdis. “He is one of our biggest competitors and he really pitched well after that second inning.”
Azusa Pacific rallied from the game-opening 7-run hole, using a Cutspec third inning grand slam to get the Cougars back into the game at 7-5. Two innings later, Azusa Pacific tied the game 7-7 on Stephen Vogt’s fifth inning single up the middle that plated Kohatsu, chasing Warrior ace Chris Kissock.
“To come back from 7 down against one of the best teams in the nation says something about our guys,” Svagdis added. “They don’t panic. And we still had a chance with the tying run at the plate in the top of the ninth.”
Lester gave the Warriors a brief advantage with a 2-out home run, his second on the season, in the bottom of the sixth to put the Warriors up 8-7 before Kohatsu slugged his equalizer, seemingly setting the stage for a thrilling close that didn’t quite materialize.
“We pitch to contact, and tonight we missed our target too much,” Svagdis said. “We walked 8 guys, and that’s not like us. We had determined before the game that we were going to go with Boekestein as a set-up man for Pettikas who was going back to being our closer. Up to the final 2 weeks of the regular season, ‘Booke’ was on pace to be an All-GSAC pitcher, and we wanted to give him opportunities during this series so he can get going again because we’re going to need him at the World Series next week.”
Three of those 8 free passes issued to the Warriors eventually scored.
“I’m not discouraged,” said Svagdis. “We have to go back and clean up some things, but we’re certainly not fearful of L-C State, and their not fearful of us. This was a heavyweight fight that ended too soon. Had we had a couple more innings, we might have done it.”
Lester finished the game 4-for-5 with 4 RBIs.
Cutspec was 3-for-6 with 4 RBIs, and Hodsdon went 3-for-6 with 3 RBIs. Azusa Pacific becomes the first team to score 10 or more runs against the Warrior pitching staff, which came into the super regional with an NAIA-leading 2.27 ERA.
Lewis-Clark State, which improves to 52-4 on the season, takes a 1-0 lead in this best-of-3 series. Game 2 will be Thursday (May 17) at 7:05 p.m. at Cougar Field. Azusa Pacific falls to 49-7.