RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu’s 2-run eighth-inning home run lifted the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific out of a 4-3 deficit, and the Cougars held on to post a 6-4 win that clinched a season series win over California Baptist Thursday afternoon.
A pair of home defeats last week to Fresno Pacific, the Golden State Athletic Conference’s second-place team, shave the Cougars’ conference lead to a single game over the Sunbirds. A doubleheader split at San Diego Christian last Saturday left Azusa Pacific clinging to its single-game margin heading into a crucial midweek series with California Baptist, the GSAC’s hottest team with 8 wins in its past 10 games entering the week. In addition, the Cougars had suffered the program’s only shutout defeat in the past 135 games in its last visit to Riverside, a 2-0 loss in the teams’ first meeting of the season March 12.
California Baptist senior pitcher Steve Goins certainly didn’t make Azusa Pacific’s job any easier Thursday, retiring the entire Cougar lineup in order the first time through in the first 3 innings. However, just as he did in yesterday’s contest, senior shortstop Matt Venegas sparked the offense with a leadoff double to right-center field in the top of the fourth inning. Venegas was cut down at third on junior third baseman Ryan Dowell’s grounder to shortstop, but junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis drew a walk to put Dowell back into scoring position. Kohatsu’s chopper to third resulted in an out at first base, advancing Dowell and Nieuwenhuis to second and third with 2 outs.
For the second time in a week, sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec was intentionally walked to load the bases with 2 outs for junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette. Just as he did a week ago with a 2-run single up the middle in the same situation, Gillette delivered another run-scoring single, this time an infield single deep into the hole to shortstop, tying the game at 1-1 in the fourth inning.
The Cougars got to Goins again the very next inning, again using an extra-base hit to jump-start the offense. Junior rightfielder Drew Evans doubled down the left-field line, and pinch-runner Carlos Maddox scored easily on Dowell’s 2-out single to left, giving Azusa Pacific a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning. California Baptist pulled even at 2-2 in the bottom of the fifth, scoring on a bases-loaded groundout.
Gillette’s second infield single of the game led off the seventh inning, and he scored to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead on Maddox’s 2-out double to left-center carried just over Lancer centerfielder Robert Lundy’s outstretched glove. California Baptist answered again, striking for 2 runs in the bottom of the seventh off Azusa Pacific reliever Zach Pettikas, and the Lancers led 4-3 heading into the eighth inning.
Goins struck out Dowell to open the eighth, but left-handed reliever Levi Garrett hit the only batter he faced, Nieuwenhuis, with a pitch before giving way to Brandon Daily. One swing of Kohatsu’s bat swung the lead back to Azusa Pacific for good with the 2-run shot to left. The Cougars added another run in the ninth without the ball ever leaving the infield. Maddox was hit by pitch with 1 out, and Venegas and Dowell drew back-to-back walks to load the bases before a wild pitch scored Maddox from third to give the Cougars a 6-4 lead. Nieuwenhuis was intentionally walked to load the bases, Kohatsu grounded into a fielder’s choice in which Venegas was forced out at home, and Julian Arballo struck out Cutspec to keep the Lancers within 2 runs at 6-4.
Junior Jonny Bravo picked up his second save in as many days, tossing 2 near-perfect frames to close out the victory. Bravo retired all 3 batters in the ninth on infield groundouts, and induced a double-play grounder to shortstop after walking Brandon Peters to lead off the ninth inning. Pettikas earned the win in relief, improving to 3-0 on the season. Senior starter Andrew Shive left the game in a 2-2 tie after 5 innings, scattering 2 runs, only 1 earned, on 5 hits while striking out 5.
Gillette led Azusa Pacific’s 9-hit attack, registering a 3-for-4 afternoon, while Nieuwenhuis also reached 3 times, twice on walks and once on a hit by pitch. Kohatsu’s 2-run home run was his team-leading 11th of the season, and it tied him with Cutspec for the team’s season RBI lead with 50 runs driven in on the year.
With the win, Azusa Pacific clinches the season series win over California Baptist, and the Cougars improve to 35-8 overall, 23-7 GSAC. Fresno Pacific remained just 1 game behind GSAC leader Azusa Pacific, keeping pace with an 8-6 home victory over The Master’s Thursday afternoon. California Baptist falls to 28-16 overall, 17-13 GSAC, and the Lancers drop into a 3-way tie for fourth in the conference standings with Concordia and Point Loma Nazarene, both winners Thursday afternoon. Point Loma Nazarene defeated the Cougars’ upcoming Saturday doubleheader opponent, Vanguard, 12-0, with Kenny Houser tossing a no-hitter in the victory.
Azusa Pacific visits Vanguard for a noon doubleheader on Saturday, April 19.