LEWISTON, Ida. – Junior right-hander Matt Fitts tossed a 6-hitter, allowed only 1 earned run, and retired the final batter with his ninth strikeout of the game and with the tying run on third base to help the Lewis-Clark State College capture the NAIA’s West Coast Super Regional title with a 4-3 win over Azusa Pacific at LCSC’s Harris Field Thursday night.
The win gives LCSC a 2-0 sweep in the best-of-3 series after the Warriors won last night’s opener by an identical 4-3 score.
And as was the case in Wednesday’s contest, Azusa Pacific assumed the early lead in the game, scoring first in the top of the second and then moving out to a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth. However, the Warriors knotted the game at 3-3 with a single run in the bottom of the fifth and then plated the game-winner in the seventh. Again, quality Warrior pitching down the stretch kept Azusa Pacific at bay and from forcing a decisive third game Saturday afternoon.
Although both teams already were assured of berths into the 10-team Avista NAIA World Series, which opens next Friday at Harris Field, LCSC, 53-5 will go into the tournament as the West Coast champion while Azusa Pacific, 45-10, will receive one of three at-large berths.
Fitts, a preseason NAIA All-American, improved to 11-0 on the season with his third complete game of the season. The Santa Rosa, Calif., product, who was a 15th-round draft pick of the Houston Astros last year, threw 129 pitches in the game and allowed only 4 hits until the ninth inning.
Fitts allowed 2 unearned runs in the fifth inning, which allowed Azusa Pacific to take a 3-2 lead. He then retired the next 11 batters before Drew Evans and Matt Venegas hit back-to-back singles to put runners on the corner. With closer Justin Mace ready to go, it appeared Fitts’ night was done, but after a talk with pitching coach Gus Knickrehm, Fitts stayed in the game and struck out Galen Komo to end the contest.
“You have to give Fitts credit,” said Cougar coach Paul Svagdis. “Komo worked him to a 3-2 count and with first base open he put a slider right where it had to be.”
It’s the second straight year LCSC has defeated Azusa Pacific for the Super Regional title.
Azusa Pacific broke on top in the third inning when Venegas and Beyer opened with singles and Kirk Nieuwenhuis was hit by a pitch to load the bases with no outs. Stephen Kohatsu then grounded into a double play, which allowed Venegas to score.
The Cougars had multiple chances to score more, loading the bases in the second and third innings and getting the lead-off batter on base in the fourth. Yet, they produced just 1 run for all their threats.
“We needed to knock out Fitts early when we had the bases loaded,” said Svagdis. “We had both their starters on the ropes early each night and didn’t execute a very good hitting plan in key situations. But we faced 2 really good pitchers. They are top notch.”
LCSC gained the lead in the fourth with a pair of runs on 4 hits. Ikaika Lester tied the game with a solo home run to center field, his eighth of the season. Brian Ward followed with a single and was replaced by courtesy runner Ryan Anderson, who stole second and went to third when the throw was wide of the base and went into center field. Josh Ashenbrenner then singled in Anderson, but the Warriors proceeded to leave the bases loaded.
The Cougars took a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth, all with 2 outs. Following a walk, Kohatsu was awarded first base on catcher’s interference. Brice Cutspec then smacked a 2-run double to left-center field to score Nieuwenhuis and Kohatsu.
LCSC tied it 3-3 in the fifth with an unearned run. Cougar reliever Matt Stone opened his stint with consecutive walks to Kyle Greene and Sean Halton, and a one-out error on a grounder hit by Ward loaded the bases. Ashenbrenner followed with a sacrifice fly to center to bring in Greene.
LCSC picked up the winning run in the seventh when Halton doubled to right and Lester followed with an RBI single to left. Lester and Ashenbrenner finished with 2 hits and 2 RBI , while Brent Wyatt added 2 hits as well.
Venegas accounted for 2 of the Cougars’ 6 hits in a game that featured a number of outstanding defensive plays.
“Komo made an ESPN highlight play to keep it 4-3 in the eighth,” said Svagdis. “It was an over-the-shoulder, laid-out diving catch for the third out with a man on third. And their outfielders did a great job getting jumps on balls that we hit to the fence or in the gap. I thought we hit the ball today better than yesterday in terms of solid contact.”
Azusa Pacific used 5 pitchers in the game and the third, Matt Stone, took the loss to fall to 5-3.
The Cougars and their high-powered offense came into the Super Regional averaging 11 runs a game over the previous 18 contests. However, in 18 innings of work 3 Warrior pitchers held Azusa Pacific to its lowest run total in consecutive games this season and handed the Cougars their first back-to-back losses in over a month.
Rather than return home and then come back 5 days later, the Cougars will stay in Lewiston and work out until the Series.