AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior righthander Matt Stone fired 5 shutout innings as the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific rolled out to a 7-0 lead, and the Cougars maintained their 1-game GSAC lead over Fresno Pacific with an 11-2 home win over California Baptist Wednesday afternoon.
Stone’s strong performance was much-needed for an Azusa Pacific pitching staff that had been mired in a month-long slump, surrendering 119 runs in 134 innings over the past 16 games following a 2-0 road loss to California Baptist March 12. During that span, the Cougars’ team ERA ballooned from 3.54 to 5.09. Stone himself registered an 8.14 ERA over the past month heading into today’s key matchup with the GSAC’s hottest team, a Lancer squad that had won 8 of its past 10 contests beginning with a doubleheader sweep of Fresno Pacific.
The tone was set early, with Stone striking out Robert Lundy and Zach Aguirre to open the game. Heading into the sixth inning, the junior righthander had given up just 2 hits and retired 8 straight batters, including back-to-back strikeouts of Lundy and Aguirre again to end the fifth. California Baptist got on the board with Brandon Peters’ leadoff home run on Stone’s first sixth-inning offering, and J.P. LaPointe and Steve Goins hit back-to-back doubles to pull the Lancers to within 7-2 before Levi Garrett lined into a double play.
Junior lefthander Jonny Bravo came on in relief of Stone after a hit-batsman, and his full-count fastball froze pinch-hitter Sean Kelley for the third out of the inning. Bravo turned in one of his finest efforts of the season, finishing the game with 3.1 innings of 1-hit relief. Not even a leadoff error in the top of the eighth inning fazed him, as he retired the next 2 batters on fly outs before picking off pinch-runner Ben Magnone at first base to close out the inning. Bravo didn’t surrender a hit until Lundy’s 2-out single in the top of the ninth inning, and he induced a game-ending groundout to second base to close out the game and pick up his first save of the season.
“We talked with our pitching staff last week, and we said it’s going to be our plate and we’re going to command the game,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “We came out and pitched aggressively, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with Stone and Bravo’s performance today.”
Senior shortstop Matt Venegas doubled to nearly the exact same spot in right-center field in each of his first 2 at-bats, sparking a 3-run first inning and a 2-run second. Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu capitalized on junior third baseman Ryan Dowell’s 2-out walk in the bottom of the fourth inning, tacking on 2 more runs with his 10th home run of the season, a 2-run shot to left-center.
“We’re trying to do the same things we’ve been doing all year,” said Svagdis. “We were facing one of the better left-handers in the league today, and we just wanted to make him elevate and find the zone. Our guys did a good job of that today, especially early in the game.”
Junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis answered California Baptist’s 2-run sixth with another 2-out home run, driving the first pitch he saw from Lancer reliever Bobby Kelley over the right-field fence to give Azusa Pacific a 9-2 lead in the sixth inning. The Cougars rounded out the scoring in the bottom of the seventh, when Dowell’s bases-loaded chopper down the third-base line was mishandled, allowing 2 runs to score for an 11-2 advantage.
“Kirk’s been hitting the ball well lately,” said Svagdis. “He’s getting pitched differently this year, and he’s starting to adjust to that and settle in offensively.”
Azusa Pacific and California Baptist square off again on Thursday, April 17, at 3 p.m. in Riverside, the site of the Cougars’ 2-0 defeat to the Lancers March 12, Azusa Pacific’s first shutout loss in over 2 years after the Cougars went 114 consecutive games without being shut out.
“We don’t have any extra motivation (for tomorrow’s game) beyond it being a conference game and we want to play well every game,” said Svagdis. “You get shut out here or there – it’s just baseball, and we don’t really think about that. We talk about winning series, and tomorrow that’s going to be our motivation. We have a series to win with a team in our conference, and they’re going to make us earn everything we get.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 34-8 overall, 22-7 GSAC, keeping its 1-game lead intact with 7 conference games remaining. Fresno Pacific posted a 2-1 road win over The Master’s Wednesday afternoon to keep pace with the first-place Cougars. California Baptist drops to 28-15 overall, 17-12 GSAC, and the Lancers fall 2 games behind third-place Biola and remain 1 game ahead of fifth-place Point Loma Nazarene in the conference standings.