AZUSA, Calif. -- An unforgettable 2007 season set the standard by which all future Azusa Pacific baseball teams would be measured. With Saturday’s 12-6, 18-1 doubleheader sweep over Vanguard, the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Cougars matched last year’s 17-1 start, the best in program history.
“We’ve infused a lot of new players, so they’re just jumping on board with the guys we had last year” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “I like how we’re trying to get better every day. I think the guys are just picking up where they left off last year. They’re focused, they’re locked in and they have a goal and purpose in mind. We play one game at a time, and we try to have good at-bats, whether we’re up 14 or down 14. The guys behind them left a good mentality, and our leadership right now is really good with that. They’re trying to do the right things consistently, regardless of what the record is, what the score is or who we’re playing.”
Were it not for a Feb. 21 game at The Master’s College suspended in the top of the ninth inning due to darkness with Azusa Pacific leading 22-9, the Cougars would officially own the program’s best-ever start. Considering the firepower it lost with the departure of 2007 seniors Stephen Vogt and Scott Hodsdon, who are both reporting to spring training for the second season of their young professional careers, Saturday’s victories may have allowed the current squad to step out from the shadow of last year’s storybook season. The Cougars plastered 30 runs on the scoreboard while playing 14 innings of error-free ball under a dreary, misty sky that made the playing conditions less than ideal.
“We talk about challenges every time we step on the field – what is the new challenge going to be today?” said Svagdis. “The field was pretty wet, but we did a pretty good job taking infield and outfield even though you could tell the ball was coming off the ground really wet. Coach Price does a lot of mental preparation with us, and I thought the guys did a great job with (their mental approach). I thought we played some of the best defense of the year, and it was in the worst conditions we’ve had. Our guys did a great job staying focused and taking care of the fundamentals on a wet day.”
Azusa Pacific led at the end of all 14 innings played, tallying first-inning runs in both games, including senior shortstop Matt Venegas’ leadoff home run to left in the second game. After the 12-6 Game 1 win, Venegas’ shot set the tone for the nightcap, where the Cougars batted around the order in 2 of their 6 times to the plate. It was his fourth first-inning leadoff home run of the season.
“Before today, I had been flying out a lot, so I was just trying to get back to hitting the ball hard on the ground,” said Venegas. “Once I had 2 strikes on me, I was just trying to fight every pitch off, and I just got into one.”
Ten batters came to the plate in the bottom of the third inning, and Stephen Gillette’s bases-loaded 2-run double sparked what turned out to be a 5-run inning that pushed the lead to 6-0. That 5-run burst was just the beginning, as the Cougars tacked on 4 more in the fourth to answer Vanguard’s lone run. Senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu and sophomore Brice Cutspec hit back-to-back opposite-field home runs to give Azusa Pacific a 10-1 lead after 4 innings, and the Cougars added a pair in the fifth on Venegas’ RBI triple followed by a Derrick Keeton sacrifice fly.
With a steady mist slowly enveloping the edges of the Cougar Baseball Complex, Azusa Pacific put an exclamation point on the day with a 6-run sixth inning, sending 11 batters to the plate in the frame. With 1 out, junior right fielder Drew Evans doubled down the left-field line, and senior second baseman Galen Komo tripled to right-center, the first 2 of 5 straight Cougar hits. Junior center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis was hit by pitch with the bases loaded to push the lead to 15-1, and Kohatsu cleared the bases with a double to right-center to wrap up the scoring.
“We practice in the rain a lot, and we have a great mental coach that really gets us prepared for stuff like this, and (the conditions) didn’t seem to be a problem for us today,” said Venegas. “I thought we did a really good job with our intensity level.”
In the first game, Venegas reached and advanced to second on Vanguard shortstop Zach Leighton’s throwing error to first, a between-hopper that first baseman Derek Craddock was unable to contain. After moving to third on a groundout, Venegas scored on a wild pitch to open up the scoring. Nieuwenhuis walked and then scored on a Cutspec single to give the Cougars a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
Vanguard answered with a run in the second, then briefly took the lead at 3-2 on Craddock’s third-inning 2-run home run, but that’s when Azusa Pacific responded with a 5-run outburst in which it batted around for the first time of the day. Cutspec smashed a 3-run home run to left field to put the Cougars back on top, 5-3, and the Cougars added 3 more on an Evans smash to left that plated 3 more in the fourth inning for a commanding 10-3 lead.
Venegas and Kohatsu led all hitters with 5 hits apiece on the day, and Cutspec wasn’t far behind with a 4-for-8 day with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs. Junior righthander Christian Gagné fired 6 innings of 2-hit ball and struck out 5 to earn the win in the nightcap. Along with last weekend’s complete-game nightcap shutout over San Diego Christian, Gagné has now thrown 14 shutout innings in his last 15 complete innings pitched.
With the sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 17-1 overall, 9-1 GSAC, while Vanguard drops to 6-11 overall, 2-9 GSAC. The Cougars are back in action on Thursday, March 6, visiting the GSAC’s second-place Fresno Pacific in a 2:30 p.m. contest.