FRESNO, Calif. -- Junior center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ solo home run to left-center in the top of the sixth inning sparked a 7-run inning that helped lift the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific to an 11-4 road win over No. 23-ranked Fresno Pacific. The Sunbirds, a third-year program, appeared in this afternoon’s national coaches poll for the first time in program history after starting the day as 1 of just 3 1-loss teams in Golden State Athletic Conference play.
The Cougars scored the next 6 runs of the inning on just a pair of hits, with Fresno Pacific pitchers issuing 3 free passes on a base on balls and 2 hit-batsmen, and a pair of Sunbirds errors also helped the Cougar cause. Senior shortstop Matt Venegas doubled in a pair of runs that pushed the lead to 10-4, and junior left fielder Chris Cooper’s sacrifice fly to center scored Ryan Dowell from third base to wrap up a 7-run frame that sent 11 Azusa Pacific batters to the plate.
In addition to his sixth-inning solo shot, Nieuwenhuis drew 3 walks and scored again, and sophomore designated hitter Brice Cutspec went 3-for-5 with 2 runs and 2 RBIs to pace the Cougars’ 11-run, 12-hit attack.
Fresno Pacific scratched a run across in the bottom of the first after Cougar starter Jonny Bravo struck out the first 2 Sunbirds batters of the game. Cutspec wasted no time answering with a 2-run home run to right-center after senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu’s leadoff single to start the second inning.
Nieuwenhuis drew a leadoff walk to start the fourth inning, and this time it was Kohatsu’s turn to put another 2 runs of damage on the scoreboard, smashing a 2-run home run to left-center to give Azusa Pacific a 4-1 lead. A 2-out wild pitch in the bottom of the fifth inning scored another Sunbirds run to cut the margin to 4-2 heading into the Cougars’ big sixth inning.
Bravo struck out 6 and scattered 3 runs on 5 hits in a 6-inning outing that netted him his third victory of the season. The Cougar bullpen surrendered a single unearned run in the seventh inning, but Garrett Lebsock, Ben Jones and Nieuwenhuis closed out the game with an inning apiece to preserve the valuable conference road victory.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 14-1 overall, 7-1 GSAC, on a day when both other 1-loss teams at the top of the conference standings lost at home. One of those teams was Fresno Pacific, which dropped to 8-4 overall, 4-2 GSAC, and the other was No. 9-ranked The Master’s, which suffered a 7-4 loss at home to Westmont.
The Cougars return to action on Friday, Feb. 29, with a non-conference matchup with La Sierra, followed by a GSAC doubleheader against Vanguard on Saturday, March 1, beginning at 11 a.m.