AZUSA, Calif. -- Defending NAIA Region II champion Azusa Pacific clinched a return trip to the regional championship after blasting 6 home runs in an 18-12 win over second-seeded Fresno Pacific Thursday afternoon in the NAIA Region II Playoffs.
Junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis drilled 3-run home runs in each of the first 2 innings to spot the top-seeded Cougars a 6-run lead after just 2 innings, but the game was hardly a runaway. Fresno Pacific battled back to even the game at 6-6 before senior second baseman Grant Beyer and sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec each went deep in a 5-run fourth inning that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good.
Senior designated hitter Stephen Kohatsu, the Cougars’ season home run leader, got into the action as well, driving a solo shot down the left field line in the sixth inning to give the Cougars a 12-8 lead, then slamming a 3-run shot to left-center to spark a 6-run eighth inning. All of Azusa Pacific’s first 15 runs came via the longball, with the final 3 runs coming unearned in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Nieuwenhuis, whose grand slam yesterday helped lift the Cougars to a 9-6 win over Point Loma Nazarene, finished the game 3-for-5 with 6 RBIs. He also scored 4 runs to run his season total to 76, breaking the Azusa Pacific single-season scoring mark of 74 set a year ago by Scott Hodsdon.
The first 5 spots in the Cougar lineup drove in 17 of its 18 runs in the game, combining to go 14-for-27 with 14 runs and all 9 of Azusa Pacific’s extra-base hits. Senior shortstop Matt Venegas, the 2008 GSAC Player of the Year, was 3-for-6 with 2 doubles and 3 runs, and Cutspec was 3-for-5 with 2 RBIs on his 12th home run of the season.
Senior lefthander Zach Pettikas came on in relief after Fresno Pacific’s Anthony Norwood and Case Rigby hit back-to-back solo shots to cut the Cougar lead to 11-8. Pettikas gave up just 2 hits over the next 2.2 innings and struck out a pair to pick up the win in relief.
Fresno Pacific was led by Rigby and catcher Josh Jackson, who each went 4-for-5 to pace the Sunbirds’ 15-hit attack. Fresno Pacific starting pitcher Aaron Lynn, who held the Cougars scoreless for 5 innings in a 15-7 regular-season win in Azusa, gave up 7 runs on 7 hits in 3 innings of work, dropping to 4-2 on the season.
The Cougars, now 44-8 on the season, will take on 1 of the 3 remaining 1-loss teams in tomorrow’s championship at 2 p.m. Fresno Pacific, now 36-13 overall, drops into the loser’s bracket, where they will play tonight against the winner of this afternoon’s contest between Biola and Concordia. The winner of tonight’s game advances to tomorrow’s championship.