LEWISTON, Idaho -- After hosting and sweeping through an NAIA Region II Tournament in which it averaged 12 runs per game and all 10 games averaged nearly 18 runs per contest, Azusa Pacific was edged in an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel Wednesday night by Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) College in Game 1 of the best-of-3 NAIA West Coast Super Regional at Harris Field, the site of the 2008 NAIA World Series.
Both Azusa Pacific and Lewis-Clark State have bids to next week’s 10-team championship already locked up, but it certainly did not have a laid-back exhibition feel. Lewis-Clark State head coach Ed Cheff made sure of that, earning a quick ejection in the bottom of the second inning after a heated argument with the umpire over a call at second base.
Both starting pitchers turned in solid efforts, but the relief pitching stole the show by posting 3-and-a-half scoreless innings to finish the game. Azusa Pacific starter Andrew Shive scattered 2 runs on 5 hits over the first 5 innings for the Cougars, who were designated the home team for the contest as the winner of a pregame coin flip. Azusa Pacific took a 3-2 lead for Shive, but the senior righthander ran into trouble in the top of the sixth inning, surrendering 4 consecutive singles that resulted in a pair of Lewis-Clark State runs.
From there, the relief corps took over. Junior righthander Christian Gagné inherited Shive’s runners on first and second with no outs, and he induced an infield fly to shortstop for the first out, followed by a line out to second base and an inning-ending strikeout to escape the jam. Junior southpaw Jonny Bravo fired 2 scoreless innings, striking out a pair, and junior righthander Ben Jones tossed a perfect ninth inning.
However, after surrendering 3 runs in the first 3 innings, Lewis-Clark State starter Michael Guerrero settled into a groove. The junior southpaw gave up just 2 hits and struck out 4 in his final 4 innings of work to earn the victory, his eighth of the season. Another junior lefty, Blaine Hardy, struck out 3 Azusa Pacific batters in 2 perfect innings of relief to pick up his fourth save this season.
Lewis-Clark State took an early 1-0 lead on a double-play grounder in the top of the second with runners on first and third, but junior centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis reached in the bottom of the second on a leadoff single through the right side. Sophomore first baseman Brice Cutspec drew a 4-pitch walk, and junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette’s bunt was fielded by Guerrero for the fielder’s choice force out at second. Cheff’s ejection came as a result of an argument over the play at second base. Sophomore designated hitter Chris Feicht’s single to center on the first pitch after order was restored brought Nieuwenhuis in to tie the game at 1-1.
Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu slammed a 2-out solo home run to straightaway center field in the bottom of the third, giving the Cougars a 2-1 lead, and Nieuwenhuis got into scoring position with a double to right-center on Guerrero’s next offering. Cutspec’s single to right-center plated Nieuwenhuis again for a 3-1 Azusa Pacific lead. Sean Halton trimmed the lead to 3-2 with a 1-out home run to left-center in the top of the fourth inning, and the score held until the Warriors’ 2-run sixth.
Halton finished the game 4-for-4 with 2 runs and 2 RBIs to go with his fourth home run of the year, but he was the only Warriors batter with multiple hits. Nieuwenhuis, Kohatsu and Feicht each registered 2 hits for Azusa Pacific. Kohatsu became the fifth Cougar to ever register 20 home runs in a season with his third-inning solo shot.
The loss drops the Cougars’ overall record to 45-9, while Lewis-Clark State improves to 52-5 on the season. The NAIA West Coast Super Regional continues Thursday at 6:05 p.m., with the if-necessary third game slated for Saturday, May 17, at noon.