LEWISTON, Idaho -- It didn’t take long to figure out which Cougar team would show up for Monday afternoon’s elimination game with Lee (Tenn.). Cougar starter Jonny Bravo struck out the side in the top of the first, and Scott Hodsdon’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning scored Matt Venegas from third to give top-seeded Azusa Pacific the early lead, and Bravo took over from there to lead the Cougars to a 7-4 victory over Lee.
“This is a good victory, and it gives us some good momentum going into tomorrow,” said Bravo. “The first inning changed everything. I was able to strike out the side and Matt led off with a base hit. That’s what we needed, and that’s what we didn’t do in our first game.”
Azusa Pacific suffered a 14-9 defeat to Lindenwood (Mo.) in its opening game Saturday night, sending the Cougars directly into the elimination bracket in its first World Series appearance since 1984.
“We had to get out of our regional through the loser’s bracket,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “I don’t like it – I’d rather just fly right through, score 15 runs a game and just cruise home to California, but I think they have stepped up to the challenge. They have played well when they are looking behind them and that flame is catching them in the backside. They’re just a step ahead of it.”
Bravo continued his dominance of sixth-seeded Lee’s lineup, striking out at least 1 batter in each of the first 7 innings and finishing with 10 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings before the Flames started to rally in the top of the ninth. With 1 out, Elvis Sosa broke the ice for Lee with a solo home run to right-center field, and Michael Valadez and Tony Perez followed with back-to-back hits that scored another run and put a runner in scoring position.
Hodsdon came on in relief to close out the game, but Nick Utley hit a 2-run home run over the right-field fence that just cleared Rod Wilson’s glove at the edge of the wall, cutting the Cougar lead to 7-4. Hodsdon struck out the final 2 batters to send Azusa Pacific into another elimination game tomorrow, where they will take on eighth-seeded Houston Baptist (Texas).
“I wanted to go as many innings as I could, and I guess 8 and a third is all I had,” said Bravo. “Scott came in and shut them down, and we’re on to tomorrow.”
Venegas led off the game with a ground ball single up the middle and advanced to third on Grant Beyer’s single through the left side. After Lee starter Cody Campbell struck out Stephen Vogt, Hodsdon lifted a fly ball to center field to score Venegas.
“When Matt gets on (base), we roll,” said Vogt. “He did a great job getting on for us, and we were able to pull through, and we had guys picking each other up all day. We had guys who weren’t necessarily able to take care of it at their point, including myself in the first when I struck out, but Scott was right behind me to pick me up, and we’ve picked each other up like that all year.”
After surrendering a 2-out double to Valadez in the top of the second, Bravo allowed only 1 Lee baserunner to reach second base until the eighth inning.
“Bravo set the tone for us,” said Svagdis. “You can’t say enough about great pitching, and he did it for us today. We can talk about the home runs, but 7 runs is not enough, so we need to continue to push runs across the board. When you’ve got a good guy pitching and you get him a run right out of the gate, I think it helped out a lot.”
Utley led off the eighth with a walk, and Kyle Sullivan singled through the left side to put runners on first and second with no outs. For the first time in the game, Bravo did not strike out a batter in an inning, but he induced 2 popups and a groundout to escape the eighth inning with his shutout intact.
With Bravo mowing through the Flames lineup, Hodsdon sparked a 3-run fourth inning when he led off the bottom of the fourth with his 27th home run of the season, a solo shot to left that pushed the Azusa Pacific lead to 2-0. Brice Cutspec and Stephen Gillette hit back-to-back 1-out singles, and Stephen Kohatsu was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Eddie Crespo, who flied out to shallow left. Cutspec tagged up at third but retreated to third as the throw went through to the plate, but Gillette was caught halfway between second and third. The throw to second from Valadez beat Gillette to the bag, but sailed well over the bag and rolled to the warning track in center field, allowing both Cutspec and Gillette to score and stretch the lead to 4-0.
“That’s why baseball is funky,” said Svagdis. “We made a mistake, but then they made a mistake on our mistake and it ended up helping us. That’s why I wish I coached some other sport where that doesn’t happen. They do a good thing, our guy (gets caught off) second, but we get 2 runs out of it and it changes the complexion of the game.”
Cutspec hammered his 19th home run of the season to straightaway center field to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Cougars added 2 more in the bottom of the eighth on Venegas’ 2-out, 2-run single between third base and shortstop to extend the lead to 7-0.
Venegas was 1 of 3 Cougars with multiple hits, leading the Cougars’ 11-hit attack with a pair of singles. Cutspec and Gillette each added 2 hits. Lee’s offense was paced by Valadez, Utley and Sullivan, who each finished with 2 hits to combine for 6 of the Flames’ 9 hits.
“I did not want this to be my last game,” said Vogt, who was 1-for-4 with an infield single in the win after reaching base safely in 4 of his 5 plate appearances Saturday. “I’m not ready to be done being a Cougar, and I want to keep it going. I struggled at the plate today, but I didn’t let it affect me. I had one job today, and that was to catch. Like they have all year, my teammates picked me up.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 51-9 overall, while Lee exits the tournament with a 51-15 overall mark.
“We know it’s one game at a time, and I think the guys recognize the value of that,” said Svagdis. “It’s been a really special year for this club, and we just wanted to get one more day so we can keep this group together for one more day. When we play together and we play well, we have a lot of fun and we enjoy our time together.”
Live video coverage of tomorrow’s game is available through a partnership between the NAIA and XOS Technologies, which streams exclusive live video and audio of the 51st Annual Avista-NAIA Baseball World Series via the Internet. The NAIA and XOS will feature all tournament games through www.watchNAIA.com, a sports broadband video channel developed by XOS Technologies for the NAIA. The All-Tournament Pass is $23.95 and any single game may be purchased for $6.95.
The full bracket for the 2007 Avista-NAIA Baseball World Series is available through this link, and full tournament information will be available through the official NAIA World Series information page at http://naia.cstv.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/091905aab.html.