AZUSA, Calif. -- Three pitches was all it took for Azusa Pacific to turn what had been an afternoon of offensive frustration into the start of a 6-run rally pieced together with a little patience, some fortunate hops and a monstrous 2-run shot from sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec. The seventh-inning outburst lifted the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Cougars to a 7-4 win over The Master’s Thursday evening.
For the first 6 innings, Azusa Pacific executed its offensive game to near-perfection, but seemingly every hard line drive off a Cougar bat found its way to a Mustang fielder. Senior shortstop Matt Venegas’ leadoff drive to left was snared by Master’s third baseman Joe Zeller, and senior catcher Derrick Keeton’s second-inning smash to center with no outs and 2 runners on was tracked down by speedy centerfielder Pete Goeman to precede an inning-ending double play. Third baseman Ryan Dowell couldn’t have hit back-to-back line drives up the middle any more squarely, but Goeman was up to the task both times, laying out the second time for a highlight-reel grab to rob Dowell of an extra-base hit to left-center to lead off the bottom of the fifth.
The seventh inning looked like the beginning of the end, as Goeman’s bunt single down the third-base line snapped a streak of 15 consecutive Mustangs retired by junior starter Christian Gagné, who struck out 8 batters in 8 innings to help keep the game tied heading into the seventh. Goeman moved around to third on Chris Bando’s single to left-center, then scored the go-ahead run on Jared Otto’s groundout. With the Cougar infield pulled in, Otto’s infield grounder caught an unfriendly hop in front of the plate, chopping high into the air to Venegas at shortstop and leaving him no choice but to allow Goeman to score while throwing Otto out at first.
When Keeton drilled Runalfo Grijalva’s first pitch of the bottom of the seventh to right-center, only to see second baseman Joseph Chavarria snare the tailing liner for the first out, the Cougars could easily have decided to mentally pack it in for the day. Instead, just 3 pitches later, junior rightfielder Drew Evans hit a high chopper to the left side nearly identical to the one that scored Goeman in the top of the frame, only Evans was able to use the high hop to scoot down the line for an infield hit. Dowell drilled another liner up the middle, this time out of reach of Chavarria at second, and Venegas grounded a single between shortstop and third base to load the bases with 1 out.
Tim Woodward came on in relief of Grijalva, and senior second baseman Galen Komo’s soft grounder to the right side would easily scored Evans from third, even without the fielding error by the Mustangs first baseman that allowed Komo to reach safely and keep the bases loaded with 1 out. Junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis drew a 4-pitch walk from Woodward to bring Dowell home for the go-ahead run, and senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu put a ball in the air to right field to score Venegas on a sacrifice fly. After a wild pitch scored Komo for a 5-2 Cougar lead, Cutspec crushed Woodward’s 1-1 offering to right-center for a 2-run shot to cap the rally.
The Master’s scored single runs in the eighth and ninth innings and had runners on first and second with 1 out in the ninth after a Cougar error that ended a streak of 34 consecutive innings for the Azusa Pacific defense. With runners on first and second, Kirk Nungester hit a bouncing chopper to second, where the ball, the Mustang baserunner and senior second baseman Galen Komo converged into the running lane between first and second. Komo bare-handed the high chopper on the short hop and fired to first for the second out of the inning, and freshman centerfielder Carlos Maddox ran down Ben Ives’ line drive to deep center to seal the victory for the Cougars.
Gagné turned in a final line of 8 innings, 3 runs, 7 hits, 1 walk and 8 strikeouts to pick up the win and improve to 4-1 on the season. Cutspec finished 3-for-4 at the plate while taking the team’s home run lead with his 10th of the season on his seventh-inning 2-run shot, and junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette was 2-for-4 with a fourth-inning solo home run, a line drive that cleared the fence just inside the right-field foul pole, that tied the game at 1-1.
Goeman led the way for the Mustangs with a 2-for-3 effort, including a solo home run to lead off the top of the ninth inning that pulled the Mustangs to within 7-4. Despite leaving with the lead, Grijalva took the loss when all 3 of the baserunners he put on base in the seventh inning came around to score. Two of those runs were unearned, and Grijalva finished with 5 strikeouts in 6.1 innings of work.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 30-5 on the season, the Cougars’ first back-to-back 30-win campaigns since 1998-99. In addition, Azusa Pacific collected its 25th consecutive GSAC home win, improving to 18-4 in conference play this season while maintaining a 3-game margin over Biola and Fresno Pacific, who are both 15-7 in conference play after victories this afternoon. The Cougars are back in action Saturday when they visit Concordia for a GSAC doubleheader at noon.