AZUSA, Calif. -- If there’s any lesson to be learned from Azusa Pacific’s 109 baseball games over the past 2 seasons, it’s never to write off these Cougars. Saturday’s 12-11, 18-7 doubleheader sweep over Biola was just the latest pair of come-from-behind wins for Azusa Pacific, which clinched its second consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference Championship with the sweep.
Junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette’s ninth-inning solo home run in the first game tied the game at 9-9, and 2 innings later, his bases-loaded, 2-out single provided the difference in an epic 11-inning 12-11 victory.
In the nightcap, after Biola jumped out to 3 first-inning runs, the Cougars shrugged their collective shoulders and promptly sent 14 batters to the plate in a 9-run explosion. The first 11 batters of the frame all reached base safely, including back-to-back home runs from junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu that evened the game at 3-3, and junior rightfielder Drew Evans’ grand slam capped an 8-run third inning that effectively put the game out of reach at 17-5.
The sweep pushed Azusa Pacific’s season win total to 40, just the third 40-win campaign in program history, and it comes on the heels of last year’s 51-10 mark that set the program’s all-time wins record. In addition, it sealed the Cougars’ 10th GSAC baseball championship, more than any other program in conference history, and Azusa Pacific is the first repeat champion since Biola won 4 straight conference titles from 1998 to 2001. Nieuwenhuis also entered the Cougar record books, becoming the program’s career runs leader with 1 regular-season game still remaining in his junior campaign. He scored 5 runs on the afternoon, moving his career total to 176 and breaking his tie with former record holder Nate Philo, who scored 171 runs in his 4-year career from 1998 to 2001.
A sweltering afternoon that hit the mid-90s on the thermometer got off to a rough start for the Cougars. Biola scored 2 runs in each of the first 3 innings, then made it a 7-0 lead after 4 innings before Azusa Pacific got on the board in the bottom of the fifth inning. Senior second baseman Grant Beyer got the Cougar offense rolling with a leadoff solo home run to left-center field on the first pitch of the inning from Biola ace Jimmy Johnson, who held the Cougars scoreless on 4 hits through the first 4 innings.
Two batters later, senior shortstop Matt Venegas went deep on a 2-2 Johnson offering, pulling Azusa Pacific to within 5-2 with his 1-out solo shot to left-center. Junior third baseman Ryan Dowell singled to left, and after a Kohatsu groundout, Nieuwenhuis was hit by pitch. One swing of sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec’s bat sent Johnson’s 0-1 pitch over the left field fence for a 3-run home run that closed the gap to 7-5.
After Biola pushed another run across in the sixth inning, the Cougars answered with 3 seventh-inning runs that tied the game at 8-8, the first of 3 ties in the final 5 innings. Gillette was hit by pitch with the bases loaded, plating courtesy runner Shaun Lane from third base, and junior designated hitter Chris Cooper drove in another with a clean single to center field. Senior second baseman Galen Komo’s sacrifice fly to center brought Gillette home to even the game at 8-8.
In the top of the eighth inning, Kris Cook’s 1-out RBI single not only gave Biola a 9-8 lead, it gave the Eagles runners on second and third with 1 out in the inning when Cook advanced an extra base on a throw to the plate. The Cougars called on senior lefthander Zach Pettikas out of the bullpen, and he struck out David West and Steven Alexander to keep Azusa Pacific within a run. Gillette’s leadoff home run in the bottom of the ninth tied the game at 9-9, and the Cougars had runners on first and second with 1 out after Gillette’s shot before Biola turned an inning-ending double play to send the game to extra innings.
Nick Rotkowitz and Hawkins Gebbers led off the 10th inning with back-to-back doubles, and Gebbers scored on West’s RBI groundout for an 11-9 Eagle lead. Pettikas remained up to the task, inducing 2 more groundouts to limit the damage, and Kohatsu’s 1-out drive down the right-field line cleared the fence in fair territory, pulling the Cougars to within 11-10. Nieuwenhuis walked on 4 pitches nowhere near the strike zone, and Tim Nolan sent Cutspec down on a check-swing third strike for the second out of the inning. Gillette drew a 4-pitch walk to put runners on first and second, and Cooper’s sharp grounder to second was knocked down by a diving Gebbers. However, the ball skipped just far enough off Gebbers’ outstretched glove to allow Nieuwenhuis to make the turn around third and score on Cooper’s infield single, tying the game at 11-11.
Venegas singled through the right side to lead off the bottom of the 11th after junior Ben Jones tossed a scoreless top half of the inning, and he advanced to second on Dowell’s sacrifice bunt down the first base line. Biola issued an intentional walk to Nieuwenhuis to set up the double play, then intentionally walked Cutspec to load the bases with 1 out for Gillette. The junior leftfielder worked the count full to 3 balls and 2 strikes, then drilled a solid single to right field for the walk-off win.
What the nightcap may have lacked the suspense of the opener, it more than made up for it with the stunning display of offensive efficiency, with the Cougars scoring 17 runs on 14 hits in the first 3 innings alone. After spotting Biola a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, Azusa Pacific sent 14 batters to the plate in the bottom of the frame and slapped 9 runs on the board to erase the early deficit. Venegas drew a leadoff walk but was thrown out trying to score on Beyer’s double to right-center. Nieuwenhuis hit a 2-run home run to left to cash in Beyer, and Kohatsu tied the game 3 pitches later with a solo shot to right. Gillette walked, sophomore first baseman Chris Feicht single, and senior catcher Derrick Keeton drew another walk to load the bases for Dowell’s 2-run single up the middle that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 5-3. Evans walked to load the bases again, and Venegas drove in a run with a single to left that pushed the lead to 6-3 and knocked Biola starter Charlie Gausepohl out of the game. Beyer cleared the bases with a 3-run double into the left field corner off Eagles reliever Kyle Atkins, giving the Cougars a 9-3 advantage.
Biola tallied 2 runs in the third inning, but Azusa Pacific blew the game open with an 8-run answer in the bottom of the third inning that gave the Cougars a commanding 17-5 lead. Evans singled to lead off the inning, scoring on Nieuwenhuis’ 1-out single up the middle. Kohatsu lined a 3-run home run down the left field line for his second home run of the game, his third of the day and his team-high 15th of the season, giving the Cougars a 13-5 lead. Evans followed a Feicht single and back-to-back walks with his second hit of the inning, a grand slam to left field on an 0-2 pitch, his second grand slam and 10th home run of the season.
Junior righthander Garrett Lebsock scattered 2 runs on 5 hits in a 4.1-inning relief appearance, picking up the win to improve to 4-0 on the season.
Kohatsu collected a team-high 6 hits on the day, driving in 5 runs with 3 home runs in the doubleheader sweep, and Evans was 6-for-8 with a double, a home run and 4 RBIs. Fourteen different Cougars reached base safely, with 11 different players driving in runs in the 30-run, 37-hit attack. Cook was 5-for-6 to lead Biola’s offense, and West drove in a team-high 6 runs on the day.
Azusa Pacific, now 40-8 overall and 28-7 GSAC, hosts Westmont in the regular-season finale at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 29. The Cougars will host every game of the 6-team NAIA Region II Playoffs, which begin Tuesday, May 6. Biola, now 33-16 overall and 22-13 in conference play, hosts GSAC runner-up Fresno Pacific to wrap up the regular season on Tuesday, April 29.