AZUSA, Calif. -- While its closest challengers for the Golden State Athletic Conference title battled less than 30 miles away for the opportunity to take a final run at conference leader Azusa Pacific, the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Cougars wasted no time keeping its margin over its challengers with an 18-5 win over Westmont Thursday afternoon.
Fresno Pacific’s 5-2 win in La Mirada knocks Biola out of the GSAC title chase, 4 games behind the first-place Cougars heading into Saturday’s Azusa Pacific/Biola doubleheader. Azusa Pacific’s magic number to win back-to-back GSAC championships is down to 2, meaning any combination of 2 Azusa Pacific wins or Fresno Pacific losses in the final 3 games of the season will clinch the conference crown for the Cougars.
Junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis tied the program’s career runs record of 171, set by Nate Philo in a 4-year career ending in 2001. Nieuwenhuis scored 2 of the 18 runs Azusa Pacific scored, all in the game’s first 5 innings, and he was 1 of 6 Cougars with at least 2 hits in the team’s 23-hit effort.
Brice Cutspec registered a team-high 4 hits in 4 at-bats, and the sophomore first baseman has now hit safely in 6 consecutive at-bats and reached base safely in 7 straight plate appearances. Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu was 3-for-4 with a double and his team-leading 12th home run of the season, while junior rightfielder Drew Evans went 2-for-5 with a double, a home run and a team-high 4 RBIs.
Even senior pitcher Zach Pettikas got into the act, collecting a clean base hit up the middle in his first career at-bat in the sixth inning. Pettikas remained in the field, playing first base, and drew a walk his next time up in the eighth inning.
Senior starter Andrew Shive surrendered 1 run on 6 hits and struck out 7 in his longest appearance of the season, a 7-inning start that improved his record to 5-1 on the season. The Cougars spotted Shive an 18-run lead heading into the sixth inning, when Westmont scored its first run of the game on a wild pitch.
Westmont starter Kellen Skersies retired the first 2 Cougars of the game, but Nieuwenhuis collected a 2-out single, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored on a Westmont fielding error to give Azusa Pacific a 1-0 lead and pull to within 1 of Philo’s career runs record. Nieuwenhuis scored again to cap the Cougars’ 5-run second inning, coming in from second base on Cutspec’s single to left-center to push the lead to 6-0.
Senior second baseman Grant Beyer laid a bunt single down the third-base line to lead off the third inning, and Evans knocked Skersies’ next pitch over the left field fence for an 8-0 lead. Kohatsu led off a 3-run fourth inning with a solo home run to right-center, and the Cougars sent 11 batters to the plate in a 7-run fifth inning that pushed Azusa Pacific’s advantage to an 18-run margin.
The Cougars improve to 38-8 overall, 26-7 GSAC, while Westmont drops to 8-32 overall, 4-29 GSAC. Azusa Pacific hosts Biola for a noon doubleheader on Saturday, April 26, while Fresno Pacific visits San Diego Christian for a doubleheader at the same time.