AZUSA, Calif. -- Just when California Baptist thought it had done enough to top the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Azusa Pacific, the Cougars stole back a game it nearly let slip away, using senior catcher Derrick Keeton’s game-tying solo home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning as the spark of a 3-run inning in a 10-8 win over the Lancers Thursday afternoon.
The victory helped avenge the Cougars’ first shutout loss in over 2 years, a 2-0 defeat to California Baptist just 2 weeks ago that was followed a few days later by a 4-hit effort that nearly resulted in another shutout at the hands of Biola in an 8-1 loss on March 15.
“I’m happy that we were challenged offensively a couple of times in the past few weeks,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “When you get challenged, you have to ask yourself if you’re going to start to tank, or if you’re going to believe in yourself as a group. All of a sudden, we got those 2 challenges against California Baptist and Biola, and we came back over our spring break and worked on getting better offensively. We had a chance to come out today in a conference game, and I thought we hit the ball well today against a good staff.”
California Baptist had scored runs in 4 consecutive innings, the last a 3-run, 2-out rally in the top of the eighth inning that gave the Lancers their first lead of the game at 8-7. California Baptist’s bullpen ace, junior Julian Arballo, entered the game with a sparkling 1.74 ERA, and the hard-throwing righthander struck out junior outfielders Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Stephen Gillette to get out of a seventh-inning jam, extending a streak without allowing an earned run to 17 consecutive innings.
“You can’t think too much about close games, but you have to believe in how you play the game and be consistent with it,” said Svagdis. “If you truly believe in that and understand that idea, when you get shut out and get 4-hit by another team, you go back and make your adjustments and you believe in your plan.”
Keeton crushed Arballo’s first pitch of the eighth inning over the right-field fence to bring an abrupt end to the Lancers’ short-lived lead. The home run tied the game at 8-8, and the Cougars weren’t done in the inning. Junior third baseman Ryan Dowell and senior shortstop Matt Venegas hit back-to-back 1-out singles with 2 strikes in the count. Senior second baseman Galen Komo hit a soft bouncer to shortstop that forced Venegas out at second, but Komo beat out the double-play turn while Dowell scored the go-ahead run from third. Komo advanced to second after the throw from second base skipped past first base and out of play into the Cougar dugout. Komo then scored on sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec’s RBI double, a tailing liner to left that pushed the Cougar lead to 10-8.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” said Svagdis. “We were up the whole game, and then California Baptist came out and earned all those runs off us. Then we come right back and Keeton ties it up for us, and our guys started thinking we would go win this thing.”
Junior Jonny Bravo, who came in to get the final out of the eighth inning, eventfully retired the side in the ninth to pick up the win in relief. After Nieuwenhuis stuck with J.P. LaPointe’s sinking liner to shallow center for the first out, Bravo nearly came up with pinch-hitter Jake Johnson’s hard grounder back up the middle. The ball ricocheted off Bravo’s glove towards the third-base line, where Dowell came in from third to scoop it up and fire on the run to first base. The hurried throw came in low and hard, but Cutspec picked it out of the dirt to beat Johnson by a half-step for the second out.
“I didn’t even think we had a chance at that play,” said Dowell. “He was getting down the line quick, and I was just concentrating on picking the ball up (cleanly). I just threw it as hard as I could, and I’m glad Brice has been working on his pick drills.”
Gillette handled a towering fly ball down the left field line with ease to seal the Cougar victory.
The Cougar offense tagged California Baptist starter Steve Goins, one of the GSAC’s hottest pitchers, for 6 runs on 8 hits in the first 6 innings. Goins, who entered the game averaging a strikeout per inning with a 1.29 ERA in 8 starts this season, gave up 2 runs on junior right fielder Drew Evans’ 1-out double to straightaway center in the second inning. The Lancers answered with a single run in the top of the third, but Nieuwenhuis hit a 1-out RBI double in the bottom of the third to spark a 4-run outburst. A wild pitch scored another run for a 4-1 Cougar lead, and Gillette and Dowell each hit RBI singles back up the middle to give Azusa Pacific a 6-1 lead after 3 innings of play.
“I was pleased with how we attacked their pitching,” said Svagdis. “Goins is one of the best pitchers in the league, but the guys were patient, and when they got a pitch to hit, they hit it. I think California Baptist is one of the best teams in the league. I don’t care what the standings say – that team is one of the most physical teams in the league. Even though their record may not indicate it, all they need to do is get on a little streak, and then watch out. I like our team, and I think we’re doing a good job, but this league is really tough this year.”
Brandon Peters led off the top of the sixth with a line drive that cleared the right field fence, cutting the lead to 6-3, and the Lancers closed to within a single run at 6-5 in the seventh inning after 5 straight 1-out singles resulted in a pair of runs. Junior righthander Ben Jones entered the game to face Drake Fages, and Jones induced an inning-ending double-play ball to shortstop with his first pitch to get out of the bases-loaded jam with the lead intact.
Kohatsu’s RBI double gave the Cougars a 2-run cushion heading into the eighth, but Zach Aguirre’s 2-out double just over Dowell’s glove down the left field line trimmed the margin back to a single run at 7-6 before Goins slapped a 2-run single to right field to give the Lancers their first lead of the game at 8-7.
All 9 Cougar starters hit safely, with Venegas, Beyer, Keeton and Dowell each collecting 2 hits to lead the way. Azusa Pacific starter Matt Stone struck out 6 of the first 9 batters he faced, and he left the game after 6 innings with a 6-3 lead. He finished with 8 strikeouts, giving up 3 runs on 7 hits.
“We had a tough stretch, and things just weren’t falling for us,” said Dowell. “We were taking a good process to the plate and hitting the ball hard, but I think we’ve been getting better every game. We hit a bump in the road where things weren’t coming together, but as the season progresses, we’re hopefully continuing to get better.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 25-5 on the season, 13-4 GSAC at the halfway point of the conference schedule, while California Baptist drops to 20-12 overall, 9-9 GSAC. The Cougars are back in action Saturday, March 29, when they host Point Loma Nazarene for a noon doubleheader in Azusa.