AZUSA, Calif. -- On the surface, Azusa Pacific’s 8-5 NAIA Region II Championship game win over Concordia did not look much different than last year’s 9-5 win for the regional title over the same Eagle program on the same Cougar diamond.
Junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a solo home run in the second inning to break a scoreless tie, while last year it was then-junior Matt Venegas whose solo shot gave the Cougars a 1-0 lead.
Azusa Pacific’s offense put together 8 runs on 11 hits to help overcome a gutty effort from All-GSAC southpaw Enrique Lechuga, who last pitched just 3 days ago in Concordia’s 13-3 opening-round defeat to the Cougars. Lechuga surrendered 3 unearned runs in relief to Azusa Pacific in the 2007 title game.
Concordia even rallied to within a run at 6-5 in the sixth inning, the exact same score at the exact same point of last year’s championship contest.
However, Azusa Pacific entered Friday’s contest feeling rested and confident with 3 regional playoff wins under its belt, while the 2007 squad had to battle back from the loser’s bracket for 3 wins in just under 24 hours over the final 2 days of the tournament.
“It was really nice not to play 2 games yesterday,” said Nieuwenhuis, “but with a team like Concordia, anything can happen, so we knew we had to come out and give it our best. We’ve had different guys step up all year, and this week was no different.”
Wanting nothing to do with a do-or-die situation in this year’s tournament, the Cougars batted around for a 5-run fourth inning that gave them the lead for good before junior righthander Matt Stone came on for 4 innings of standout relief work, retiring 11 of the final 13 Concordia batters to slam the door on the Eagles’ title hopes.
“I figured I would be coming out of the bullpen (in this tournament), so I knew I had to be ready for anything,” said Stone.
Nieuwenhuis crushed the first pitch he saw from Lechuga in the bottom of the second for a leadoff home run down the right field line, his fourth playoff home run in 4 postseason contests. Concordia tied it in the top of the fourth at 1-1 when Matt Ross turned a leadoff single into a trip around the bases for the game-tying score. Ross stole second, then took third base on a wild pitch before scoring on Brian Hendrickson’s single to center.
The Cougars answered in the bottom of the fourth with 5 runs, although Lechuga very nearly escaped a no-outs, bases-loaded jam with just 2 runs of damage when he turned a bouncer up the middle into a home-to-first double play to keep Azusa Pacific’s lead at just 3-1 with 2 outs in the frame.
“We’ve seen him [Lechuga] a bunch the last 2 years, and he’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve seen in this league,” said Nieuwenhuis.
However, junior rightfielder Drew Evans knocked Lechuga’s 2-2 offering over the left-field fence to push the Cougar lead to 6-1.
“With runners on, I was just trying to stay on top of the ball and hit a line drive,” said Evans. “The barrel got into one pitch, and it got out.”
Concordia cut the lead to 6-3 after drawing back-to-back bases-loaded walks in the fifth inning, but junior righthander Christian Gagné got an important first out on a sacrifice fly to center field. After surrendering another Hendrickson single that loaded the bases once more, Gagné induced an inning-ending double-play grounder to Venegas to escape the jam with a 2-run lead still intact.
Stone started the sixth inning, and the Eagles pulled to within 6-5 on Gregg Davidson’s line drive sacrifice fly to right which Evans pulled down with a leaping snag as he retreated towards the wall. From there on out, Stone was nearly perfect, registering 4 strikeouts over the final 3 innings to earn the save, his first of the season after starting in 9 of his 12 appearances entering the postseason.
“I just wanted to keep us in the game and hold the lead for us,” said Stone. “I must have been a little pumped up (early one) with everything on the line, but I was finally able to settle in.”
The Cougars came right back to tally an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth. Sophomore designated hitter Chris Feicht’s pop-up down the right-field line dropped in safely for a 1-out single, and Evans’ liner up the middle deflected off Lechuga’s right forearm towards the third-base line for another base hit to put runners on first and second for Venegas, the 2008 GSAC Player of the Year. The senior shortstop slapped a base hit up the middle to score a run, and it extended his streak of reaching base safely to 61 games, a run that started with last year’s NAIA Region II championship games.
It also gave Azusa Pacific plenty of cushion as Stone settled into a groove over the final 3 innings. The junior righthander retired the Concordia side in order in the seventh, and he struck out the first 2 batters of the eighth before giving up back-to-back 2-out singles to Nathan Dean and Michael Gonzalez. However, he got Davidson to top a short grounder in front of the plate that senior catcher Derrick Keeton was able to pounce on and fire the throw to first base a half-step ahead of Davidson to retire the side.
Junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette led off the ninth with a home run down the right-field line that made him the fifth Cougar with double-digit home runs this year with his 10th of the season. Stone struck out Concordia’s ninth-inning leadoff batter, then induced back-to-back groundouts to junior third baseman Ryan Dowell and Venegas deep in the hole at shortstop, setting off Azusa Pacific’s victory celebration.
“Both years were sweet,” said Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis. “Last year there were no expectations, but from Day 1 this season, people were coming after us.”
“Expectations were set at the beginning of the year with the preseason ranking and last year’s World Series appearance. Our guys were able to handle it like mature young men, and I’m most impressed with the mental toughness of this group. Our senior leadership has been excellent for us in that respect. (Assistant Coach) Mike Price works with us on that very thing, and we feel blessed that he’s a part of our staff. We try very hard to stay locked into what we do and what we can take care of, and we try not to get caught up in what other teams do.”
Nieuwenhuis, Kohatsu and Evans collected 2 hits each for the Cougars, while Concordia’s 5-run, 13-hit attack was paced by Hendrickson and Dean, who each went 3-for-4. Lechuga, who fired 4 innings while taking the loss in Tuesday’s opening-round loss to Azusa Pacific, turned in a gutsy complete-game effort, striking out 4 Cougars and inducing 3 double-play ground balls.
“I was very impressed with Lechuga,” said Svagdis. “He pitched his tail off, and you have to tip your cap to his effort today. It didn’t surprise us, because we’ve seen what type of competitor he is, but in terms of our own preparation, we just tried to approach today’s game the same way we approach every game. Having the experience of last year also allowed us to realize that anyone can come out on a given day and win 2 games, and that may have helped us to stay focused for today’s game.”
Azusa Pacific’s victory, which improves the Cougars to 45-8 on the season, secures a berth in next week’s NAIA West Coast Super Regional, which will be played at the home of the Region I champion. Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) takes on College of Idaho Saturday for the Region I title.
Depending on other NAIA regional results, the Cougars could potentially secure at least an at-large bid to the NAIA World Series before next week’s super regional action begins.