AZUSA, Calif. -- For much of the season, the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Azusa Pacific has out-hit, out-scored and simply overpowered opponents on its way to 32 wins. For 2 days, No. 14-ranked Fresno Pacific beat Azusa Pacific at its own game on the Cougars’ home field, posting an 11-10 victory Thursday for a 2-game road sweep and the first season series sweep by any GSAC team over Azusa Pacific since 2006. In addition, the Sunbirds staked their claim as a conference title contender, pulling to within a single game of the Cougars with 10 games remaining on the GSAC schedule.
Azusa Pacific, the GSAC’s leader in batting average, runs, hits, doubles and home runs, was held to just 1 extra-base hit Thursday, junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ program record-breaking 11th career triple in the bottom of the third inning. Sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec’s RBI groundout to first brought Nieuwenhuis home with his 158th career run, pushing him into second all-time in career runs at Azusa Pacific, just 13 shy of Nate Philo’s career record 171 runs from 1998 to 2001.
On Thursday, however, it was a Fresno Pacific squad that tagged Cougar pitching for 6 extra-base hits, including 3 home runs on the day. Freshman Aaron Lynn, who fired 5 straight scoreless innings on the mound in just his second career start to earn the win in the Sunbirds’ 15-7 win yesterday, stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter to lead off the top of the eighth Thursday in a 9-9 tie. Lynn smacked the first pitch he saw from junior lefthander Jonny Bravo over the left field fence for his first career home run, giving Fresno Pacific a 10-9 lead.
The Cougars responded with 3 straight 1-out singles to even the game at 10-10 in the bottom of the eighth. Justin Keeney, who hit 2 home runs in yesterday’s Sunbirds win, drew a leadoff walk in the top of the ninth and promptly stole second. He advanced to third on Case Rigby’s line out to right, then scored when to give Fresno Pacific an 11-10 lead when Anthony Lowell’s light chopper to third was mishandled.
Senior shortstop Matt Venegas hit a 2-out single to keep Azusa Pacific alive in the bottom of the ninth, but Daniel Brodie struck out the final Cougar batter to preserve the Fresno Pacific win.
The Sunbirds, who exploded for 9 runs in the first 2 innings of yesterday’s contest, recorded back-to-back singles, with a throwing error on junior starter Christian Gagné’s pickoff throw to first base between hits allowing the Sunbirds an early run for a 1-0 lead. However, Gagné induced a double-play ground ball to shortstop and struck out the Keeney to escape without any further damage.
Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu’s 1-out line drive with a runner on first was misjudged and bobbled by the Sunbirds’ left fielder for an error that put runners on first and second. After a groundout to first base advanced both runners an additional 90 feet, the Sunbirds intentionally walked Cutspec to load the bases with 2 outs for junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette, who laced the first pitch up the middle for a 2-run single that gave the Cougars a 2-1 lead. Nieuwenhuis’ third-inning triple and run pushed the lead to 3-1 heading into the fourth inning.
Rigby homered to left with 1 out in the top of the fourth inning, cutting the lead to 3-2, but even after Gagné issued back-to-back walks, he struck out Aaron Padgett for the second out and was 1 out away from getting out of the inning. Andrew Douglas was hit by pitch to load the bases for leadoff hitter Jared Coleman, who tripled to deep centerfield to clear the bases and give the Sunbirds a 5-3 lead. Joey Norwood followed with a run-scoring single, and designated hitter Josh Jackson hit his third home run of the season, a 2-run shot to left that capped Fresno Pacific’s 7-run inning that put Azusa Pacific into an 8-3 lead.
Sophomore designated hitter Chris Feicht led off the bottom of the fourth with a base hit, and he advanced all the way around the bases on a balk, a passed ball and another Jacob Burns balk that pulled the Cougars to within 8-4. The next 4 Cougars collected base-hits, and junior third baseman Ryan Dowell’s bases-loaded single scored a pair to trim the margin to 8-6 while an errant throw from center put Venegas and Dowell on second and third with no outs in the inning. Burns was replaced by Jordan Keener, who allowed both runners in to score, but only on an RBI groundout and sacrifice fly before Gillette was cut down at second trying to stretch a base hit to right-center field into extra bases. Still, the Cougars had answered with a 5-run frame to tie the game at 8-8, the first of 3 ties over the final 6 innings.
Gillette recorded a team-high 3 hits for Azusa Pacific and its 14-hit attack, and Venegas, Nieuwenhuis and Cooper added 2 hits each for the Cougars. Junior Garrett Lebsock, Bravo and junior Ben Jones gave up 1 run each in a combined 5.1 innings of relief out of the Cougar bullpen. Jones took the loss, surrendering only the unearned ninth-inning run on the fielding error that allowed Keeney to score from third.
The first 3 batters in the Fresno Pacific lineup combined to go 8-for-14 in the game, with leadoff man Coleman and No. 2 hitter Norwood collecting 3 hits apiece. Jackson, the No. 3 hitter for the Sunbirds, was 2-for-5 with a double and a home run, while Coleman finished with a game-high 4 RBIs.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 32-7 overall, 20-7 GSAC, while Fresno Pacific improves to 27-9 overall, 19-7 GSAC. The Cougars visit San Diego Christian for a Saturday doubleheader in Lakeside that begins at noon, while the Sunbirds host Concordia for a noon doubleheader Saturday that begins the final 10-game stretch run through the 36-game GSAC schedule.