AZUSA, Calif. -- 301. 10. 18. Numbers were flying around the Cougar Baseball Complex Saturday afternoon, and each one carried with it the significance of an important achievement. However, the only number that mattered to the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Cougars was the addition of 2 to its season win total following Saturday’s 10-6, 13-5 doubleheader sweep over Point Loma Nazarene.
The opening-game victory gave Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis his 300th career coaching victory, and junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis tied the Azusa Pacific career triples record with his first-game 3-bagger. It was the 10th triple of Nieuwenhuis’ career, tying the record set 32 years ago by Brad Kramer.
“It doesn’t really mean a lot to me, and I don’t say that to be disrespectful to the fact that I appreciate every single one of those 300 wins,” said Svagdis, who is in the midst of his 12th season as a head coach, his sixth at Azusa Pacific. “We really don’t look at those things. We really try to live in the moment right now. Because baseball is such a game of numbers and statistics and records, and there’s such a history behind it, we’ve grown up in that environment as baseball guys. We try not to focus on it, even though I’m really happy for Nieuwenhuis.”
Senior shortstop Matt Venegas extended his hitting streak to 18 games with a 3-for-5 effort in the first game, only to see it come to an end after going hitless in 4 plate appearances in the nightcap. Venegas did, however, reach base safely when he drove in a run with a bases-loaded hit by pitch to spark Azusa Pacific’s 6-run second inning, to extend his streak of reaching base safely to 40 games dating back to the 2007 NAIA Region II Playoffs.
“I don’t think anyone on the team knew about Matt Venegas’ hitting streak,” said Svagdis. “I think that’s great, because we’re more focused on the team at that point. Sometimes numbers are inflated, so I try to tell our guys that when their numbers are great, they need to be realistic with it because it’s going to come back and even out at some point. That’s not a negative mentality or being pessimistic, it’s just the way it is, and it goes the same way when numbers are low when you might be having great at-bats. When we look at our statistics, it can get us in the wrong place mentally sometimes, because they aren’t always a true indicator of how you’re playing.”
More importantly, the Cougars turned a modest 1-game lead over second-place Fresno Pacific in the GSAC standings into a 2-and-a-half game margin atop the conference heap after California Baptist swept Fresno Pacific this afternoon in Riverside. Biola took control of second place with a road sweep over San Diego Christian to keep pace with the Cougars with 16 games still remaining in the conference schedule.
“We go into the back half of the schedule thinking about taking series,” said Svagdis. “We knew we were playing a great team in Point Loma Nazarene, a quality team that is one of the better hitting teams in the league that plays good defense and has a strong pitching staff, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. Our goal was to come out and win a series, and that started with Game 1. Once we got that and got into the second game, we started thinking about trying to take a series. We try to do it a series at a time, and the back half is where you need to do that.”
Venegas led off the first game with a double down the left field line, scoring on sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec’s groundout to even the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the first inning. Junior rightfielder Drew Evans drilled a 2-run home run inside the left field foul pole the next inning, giving Azusa Pacific the lead for good.
Nieuwenhuis’ leadoff triple in the fourth set up the first of 4 runs on 4 consecutive base hits that knocked Sea Lions starter Andrew Bovich from the game facing a 7-2 deficit.
“I didn’t know I was close to (the triples record),” said Nieuwenhuis. “Whether it’s stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple, that’s my mentality on the basepaths. As soon as it’s off my bat, I’m running hard. On that particular one, I was thinking double until it took a bad hop. I got a good look at it because it was in left-center, so I was able to get to third.”
Andy Reilly and Kurt Steinhauer hit back-to-back home runs to bring Point Loma Nazarene to within 7-5 in the top of the fifth inning, but the Cougars got all 3 runs back in the next 2 innings, scoring on a misplayed sacrifice bunt, a fielder’s choice and a wild pitch to push the lead to 10-5 after 6 innings.
Junior righthander Ben Jones retired 6 straight Sea Lions before surrendering a single run in the ninth inning to pick up the 3-inning save, his team-high fifth of the season. Nieuwenhuis and Venegas collected 3 hits apiece to pace Azusa Pacific’s 15-hit attack.
“We really wanted to make a statement with the second half of the conference season coming up,” said Nieuwenhuis. “We have the conference lead, but we’re not going to sit on it, and that’s the kind of mentality we have and the message we want to send. That’s the game that we play – we’re going to push for every game, and we’re not going to sit back.”
Point Loma Nazarene drew first blood again in the nightcap, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning, but the Cougars were up to the challenge again. Junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette and senior second baseman Grant Beyer were each hit by pitch with 2 strikes, and senior catcher Derrick Keeton drew a walk to load the bases with 1 out. Venegas was hit by pitch to score Gillette and tie the game at 1-1, and junior third baseman Ryan Dowell singled up the middle to bring in 2 more and give the Cougars a 3-1 lead after its first hit of the ballgame. Senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu was the fourth batter hit by pitch in the inning to load the bases again, and Cutspec greeted Point Loma Nazarene closer Robbie Naegele’s second pitch in relief with a bases-clearing double to center field for a 6-1 lead.
The Sea Lions got to Cougar starter Christian Gagné for 3 runs on 5 hits in the top of the third, but a Gillette-to-Venegas relay on Tyler Kuehl’s 2-out double down the left field line cut down Ian MacMaster at the plate for the third out of the inning to preserve the 6-4 lead.
“It’s great to make plays on defense, although Matt made a great throw (on the relay) to help me out on that one,” said Gillette. “I give him more credit for that out than to me, but it helps pump me up to make big plays on defense.”
Gillette crushed Naegele’s first pitch to lead off the next half-inning for his fourth home run of the season.
“I don’t think I had a bad day (at the plate),” said Gillette, who finished the day 1-for-8 but reached twice more on a hit by pitch and a fielder’s choice. “I hit some balls pretty hard and only had 1 strikeout, so I’m going to take that for the day. I just stuck with the process and got into one a little bit. I saw him coming in with a fastball and I thought I should probably hit it.”
Azusa Pacific kept its offensive momentum rolling an inning after that with a 5-run fourth-inning outburst.Dowell, Kohatsu and Cutspec went for 3 consecutive singles that accounted for 1 run, and Nieuwenhuis doubled to the right-center field gap to bring in Kohatsu for a 9-5 advantage. Beyer cleaned up the bases with 1 out with his first home run of the season, smashing the first pitch he saw over the left field fence for a 3-run shot that gave the Cougars a 12-5 lead.
“What’s starting to take hold is that any success we have is truly a team effort,” said Svagdis. “Any given player at any given moment can help us. We’ve been picking each other up, and that’s helping us at the plate a little bit. Someone has a quality at-bat but doesn’t drive a run in, but the next guy will come up and have a good at-bat. I think that’s a sign of guys having a lot of faith in each other. I don’t know how to explain it, but they’re really focused as a team. Our bench is keeping us in ballgames because of their focus. They really trust each other as a group, and they have a lot of faith in who they are and that someone is going to come through and pick them up.”
With his last opportunity to extend his hitting streak, Venegas hit a hard grounder to third base, but the throw pulled MacMaster off first base for an error. Venegas stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch with Dowell at the plate, then scored on another wild pitch to Kohatsu to wrap up the game’s scoring.
“The streak didn’t matter,” said Venegas. “I didn’t even know I had it. The only thing that matters to me is whether we win. In the second game, I got away from my plan a little bit and didn’t stay inside the ball as well as I’d like to, but I was happy to hit the ball hard today.”
Senior righthander Andrew Shive replaced Gagné to start the fourth inning, and he picked up the win in relief with 4 innings of 2-hit ball. After giving up a home run to the first batter he faced in the fourth inning, Point Loma Nazarene catcher Chris Huston, Shive didn’t allow another ball out of the infield until the final out of the game, a fly out to right, striking out 8 and surrendering just 1 more hit, a sixth-inning infield single.
Cutspec and Dowell had 4 hits apiece on the day, 2 in each game, and Cutspec drove in a team-high 5 runs, including 4 in the nightcap.
With the sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 27-5 overall, 15-4 GSAC, while Point Loma Nazarene drops to 16-16 overall, 9-11 GSAC. The Cougars visit the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in a 6:05 p.m. exhibition contest at The Epicenter in Rancho Cucamonga on Tuesday, April 1. Tickets cost $5 and are available for purchase through the Azusa Pacific Baseball office.