COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific picked up an 8-1, 10-1 doubleheader sweep over Vanguard Saturday afternoon, and the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Cougars got a little breathing room to go with it in the race for the Golden State Athletic Conference title when Fresno Pacific split a home doubleheader with Point Loma Nazarene. Azusa Pacific’s lead over the second-place Sunbirds is now 2 games with 4 conference games remaining.
Azusa Pacific jumped out to 8-0 leads in both games of Saturday’s doubleheader, and the Cougar pitching staff completed a strong week with a pair of 1-run efforts. Junior Garrett Hodges threw 4 shutout innings in his first start since March 18, and junior reliever Garrett Lebsock scattered a single run on 5 hits over the final 5 innings to pick up the relief win. In the nightcap, junior Christian Gagné struck out 5 batters and also gave up 1 run on 5 hits in a 6-inning start for the win, and junior Ben Jones struck out all 3 batters he faced in the final inning of the doubleheader sweep.
The middle of the Azusa Pacific lineup carried the offense in the first game, with the third, fourth and fifth hitters Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Stephen Kohatsu and Brice Cutspec combining to bat 8-for-14 with 4 doubles, 6 runs and 4 RBIs. Nieuwenhuis led the way, going 4-for-6 with a pair of doubles and 3 runs scored. Kohatsu was 2-for-3 and reached twice more on a walk and hit by pitch, and Cutspec was 2-for-5 with a team-high 3 RBIs.
Nieuwenhuis led off the fourth inning with an infield single, and Kohatsu’s double to left set up a pair of runners in scoring position with no outs for Cutspec. The sophomore first baseman’s base hit scored both Cougar baserunners to break a scoreless tie and spark a 4-run frame. Nieuwenhuis led off the fifth with a double, and Kohatsu’s RBI single up the middle pushed the Azusa Pacific lead to 5-0, the first of 2 runs in the inning. An inning later, another Nieuwenhuis double and Kohatsu’s walk set up another run-producing opportunity for Cutspec, who cashed them in with a 2-out, 2-run double to left-center field for an 8-0 lead heading into the final 3 innings.
Junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette was the star of the second game, putting together a 4-for-4 afternoon with a 2-run home run in the top of the third inning that gave Azusa Pacific a 5-0 lead. Gillette’s home run was his seventh of the season, and his 5 RBIs in the game gave him the team’s season RBI lead at 54.
The Cougars’ leadoff trio of senior shortstop Matt Venegas, senior third baseman Ryan Dowell and Nieuwenhuis collected 2 hits apiece to set the table for an Azusa Pacific offense that jumped on Vanguard for 8 runs in the first 4 innings. Freshman rightfielder Carlos Maddox slammed a 1-out solo home run 2 batters after Gillette’s shot, pushing the Cougars’ lead to 6-0 in the third inning. Gillette added run-scoring doubles in the fourth and sixth innings, and Venegas brought in the final run of the game with a seventh-inning groundout with a runner on third base.
With the sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 37-8 overall, 25-7 GSAC, while Vanguard drops to 15-29 overall, 6-26 GSAC. The Cougars now hold a 2-game lead over Fresno Pacific and a 3-game advantage over Biola. Fresno Pacific visits Biola twice in the final 4 games of the season, while Biola also has a doubleheader remaining at Azusa Pacific next Saturday, April 26. The Cougars host Westmont on Thursday, April 24 and Tuesday, April 29, to wrap up the regular season.