LEWISTON, Idaho -- Five-run first-inning deficit? No problem for Azusa Pacific, a team that made remarkable comebacks seem routine all season long and won 22 games when its opponent scored first.
The Cougars came back to tie the game at 6-6 with plenty of time to spare, and when Spring Arbor jumped back out to a seemingly insurmountable 4-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, Azusa Pacific’s offense simply shrugged it off and rallied yet again for 3 more runs in the bottom of the ninth. The Cougars had the tying run on base, but Spring Arbor’s Joseph Myers struck out the final batter to eliminate Azusa Pacific from the 2008 Avista-NAIA World Series, as Spring Arbor escaped with a narrow 11-10 victory Monday morning.
Despite spotting a 5-run lead before its own opening at-bat, Azusa Pacific patiently chipped away at the lead and eventually tied the game at 6-6 in the bottom of the fifth. The Cougars scored in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings to tie things up, then rallied for 3 runs, in the bottom of the ninth, all when pressed to its final out.
Senior catcher Stephen Kohatsu was hit in the leg by an 0-1 offering from Myers to lead off the bottom of the ninth, which started with an 11-7 deficit. Junior first baseman Kirk Nieuwenhuis, whose solo home run in the seventh inning pulled the Cougars to within 8-7, beat out a potential double play grounder to shortstop, and junior leftfielder Stephen Gillette singled through the right side to put runners at first and third with one out.
Myers induced a popup for the second out, bringing up sophomore first baseman Chris Feicht, who promptly doubled down the left field line to drive in Nieuwenhuis and cut Spring Arbor’s lead to 11-8. Things got even more interesting when junior rightfielder Drew Evans singled up the middle to drive in 2 more and cut the lead to 11-10 before Myers tallied the game-ending strikeout.
Feicht got Azusa Pacific’s offense rolling with his second home run of the season, a 2-run shot to left-center with 1 out in the bottom of the second inning that pulled the Cougars to within 5-2. Senior shortstop Matt Venegas, who led off the game with a double to left-center, this time lined another leadoff double to the opposite gap in right-center and scored on Kohatsu’s 1-out single down the left field line to trim the deficit to 5-3.
Senior second baseman Grant Beyer doubled to right to lead off the bottom of the fourth inning after Spring Arbor came up with a single tally in the top of the fourth, and Evans slammed a 2-run home run with 1 out in the frame to get Azusa Pacific within a run at 6-5. Kohatsu gave the Cougars their fourth leadoff double in the first 5 innings with his gapper to right-center, and courtesy runner Shaun Lane scored to tie the game at 6-6 on a Spring Arbor miscue that followed Gillette’s 1-out single to center field. The relay throw home held Lane to third base, but Gillette picked up second base when the catcher’s throw was mishandled at second base, allowing Lane to score on the error.
After a scoreless sixth inning, Spring Arbor cleanup hitter Jim Baker slammed a high Garrett Hodges fastball to straightaway center for a 2-out, 2-run home run that sent Azusa Pacific back to an 8-6 deficit. Nieuwenhuis answered with a 1-out solo shot in the bottom of the seventh, and the teams went scoreless in the eighth to send the game into the final inning with Spring Arbor leading by just 1 run, 8-7.
Hodges relieved Cougar starter Matt Stone after the first inning, throwing 6 innings of 4-hit relief with 6 strikeouts as Azusa Pacific mounted its comeback. Hodges ultimately took the decision despite the strong effort, dropping to 4-2 on the season, while Myers was Spring Arbor’s winner in relief, surrendering 4 runs on 6 hits over the final four-and-two-thirds innings.
Azusa Pacific’s seniors in the lineup combined to go 9-for-14 at the plate in their final collegiate appearance, led by 3-hit efforts from Venegas and Beyer. Venegas was 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles that pushed his season total to 25 and pulled him to within 1 of the program’s single-season doubles record of 26 set by Stephen Vogt in 2007. Beyer was 3-for-3 with a pair of runs before giving way in the late innings, as he has all season, to fellow senior Galen Komo, who went 1-for-2. Kohatsu added a 2-for-4 afternoon for the Cougars, and he also reached on his 22nd hit-by-pitch of the season, bringing his career total to 40 bases reached by hit-batsman.
Gillette was 3-for-5, and Feicht and Evans went 2-for-4 with a home run each, to pace Azusa Pacific’s 10-run, 18-hit barrage. For the second straight game, the Cougar pitching staff sent 11 opposing batters down on strikes, with Stone striking out 2 in his inning of work and junior righthander Ben Jomes tallying 3 strikeouts over the final 2 innings of the game.
Azusa Pacific’s 46-12 final record is just the third 40-win season and is the second-winningest campaign in program history, falling short only to 2007’s 51-10 mark.
Azusa Pacific’s 12 losses on the season were by an average margin of 3.3 runs, including each of the last 4 losses, all of which came to eventual NAIA World Series participants. All four were decided by a lone run, and each of the final 3 defeats ended with the tying run on base for the Cougars. Azusa Pacific’s average margin of victory in its 46 wins was 6.5 runs.