ST. GEORGE, Utah -- Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu drove in a career-high 6 runs, including 1 of Azusa Pacific’s NAIA record-tying 13 doubles, to lead the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Cougars to a convincing 16-8 victory over Dixie State (Utah) Monday evening.
“Our game is not to hit the ball out of the yard,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “We want to grind out good at-bats from 1 through 9 in the lineup, and we needed to get back to that. We worked on some things in BP, and (hitting coach) Robert Ruiz has been working through some things with our batters. Sometimes it takes a few games to get back into your plan, and tt was good to see them stay focused today. We hit the ball well the other way, which was also really good to see.”
The 13 2-baggers tied an NAIA single-game mark set by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Fla.) in a 1995 contest against Edward Waters (Fla.), and it was a junior right-handed relief pitcher making his first collegiate plate appearance who tied the mark. Ben Jones, batting because the Cougars had lost their designated hitter when center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis moved from center field to the pitcher’s mound in the eighth inning, hit a grounder down the third-base line underneath the third baseman’s glove into shallow left field for his first career hit, a history-making double.
“I was pretty excited because we never get to hit,” said Jones. “I just wanted to take the first pitch so I could see it, and then I just wanted to take a hack at it. After I hit it, I thought the third baseman was going to get it, so I made a pretty ugly turn to second.”
Kohatsu drove in the Cougars’ opening run with a single to left in the first inning, added a 2-run double in a 7-run second-inning explosion, then smashed a 3-run home run in the top of the fifth inning for a 14-2 Azusa Pacific lead and his team-leading 32nd, 33rd and 34th runs batted in the season.
The Cougars, who won 17 of their first 18 games to tie the best 1-loss start in program history before going 4-4 over the past 8 and were shut out last week for the first time in over 2 years, put together an impressive offensive display. Eleven different Cougars hit safely in a 16-run, 19-hit attack, including 3-hit efforts from Kohatsu and Nieuwenhuis. In addition, junior third baseman Ryan Dowell and junior left fielder Stephen Gillette collected 2 hits apiece.
“We have to keep working on the practice habits that we’ve been trying to create, because sometimes numbers get a little bit over-inflated,” said Svagdis. “It’s hard for anyone not to look at it. We see that we’re scoring 8 or 9 runs a game, everyone starts making comparisons to last year’s team, and you start believing it. The reality is we lost 2 All-American hitters in our lineup. We needed to (stop comparing ourselves to last year’s team and) remember what our plan and our focus was.”
“We lost our identity that we started with at the beginning of the season. Philosophically it’s the same, but we’re a different lineup, and we need to be a tougher 9 outs. We didn’t start with these expectations to score 9 runs a game, we just wanted to play good defense and pitch well while grinding out quality at-bats. In some of those (recent) games, we struggled against good pitching and got a little bit over-aggressive. I’m happy for the guys, because I think they went back to their basic hitting plan today.”
Dixie State answered Azusa Pacific’s first-inning run with a tally of its own in the bottom of the frame on Frans Meyer’s 2-out, bases-loaded single up the middle. Cougar starter Andrew Shive stranded the 3 Rebels on the bases by inducing a fielder’s choice groundout to Dowell at third that left the score tied at 1-1 after the first inning. That’s when the Azusa Pacific offense got the jump-start it sought last week.
Nieuwenhuis led off the inning with a double to right-center, sophomore first baseman Chris Feicht drew a 4-pitch walk, and senior second baseman Grant Beyer laid down a sacrifice bunt that moved the runners to second and third with 1 out. Junior right fielder Drew Evans knocked in the first run of the inning with a single to center, and senior shortstop Matt Venegas drew another base on balls to load the bases with 1 out. Dowell doubled to left to give the Cougars a 4-1 lead, chasing Dixie State starter Cody Hansen from the game.
Kohatsu knocked Jayson Madson’s second pitch into left for another 2-run double that gave Azusa Pacific a 6-1 lead, and a fielding error scored another run and allowed Nieuwenhuis to drive in another run with a single up the middle in his second at-bat of the inning.
Shive scattered 4 runs on 10 hits in 5 innings of work to pick up his first victory of the season. Junior southpaw Jonny Bravo struck out the first 2 batters he faced in the sixth and retired 6 of the 7 batters he faced in a 2-inning relief stint. Jones relieved Nieuwenhuis in a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning, inducing a double-play ball to end the Rebels threat before striking out 2 of 3 as he retired the Dixie State side in order in the bottom of the ninth.
“As a team, we were sort of in a funk, and it was good for us to come out and hit the ball well today,” said Jones. “From a pitcher’s perspective, it allows you to throw with a little more confidence.”
The 19-hit effort was the fourth such offensive explosion for the Cougars this season, falling just 1 hit shy of the team’s season-high of 20, and Azusa Pacific improves to 14-0 when scoring in the first inning this year.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 22-5 overall, while Dixie State drops to 11-11. The teams square off Tuesday afternoon to wrap up the season’s 4-game series in a 2 p.m. contest that serves as the first game of a Dixie State doubleheader, as the Rebels host California Baptist at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening.