AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific did its best impression of the Golden State Athletic Conference’s defending champion California Baptist, answering a 10-3 loss in the opener with a 7-3 win in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader in Riverside.
The Lancers struck for back-to-back 3-run innings in the second and third frames, posting consecutive 2-run innings in the sixth and seventh in the first game. The Cougars responded in similar fashion, jumping out to a 6-0 lead in the nightcap with 3 runs in each of the first 2 innings, giving Azusa Pacific a valuable split off a California Baptist squad that entered this week’s 4-game series unbeaten in its first 8 GSAC contests.
“This year’s team is a resilient group,” Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis said. “They’re doing a good job of putting the last game we played behind us and moving forward whether we win or lose. We have a process of how we’re supposed to play, and whether you win or lose, you need to move on to the next game. We bounced back from a tough loss Wednesday, and then after losing the first game today we had guys running into fences for balls for our pitchers and put the ball in play pretty well.”
The Cougars pounded out 12 hits, all singles, in the 7-inning nightcap, with 4 players registering 2 or more hits. Senior rightfielder Josh Leite was 3-for-3 and scored a pair of runs, while junior first baseman Johnathan Erb was 2-for-3 with 2 runs and 3 RBIs. Senior catcher Anthony Delgado and junior shortstop Anthony Rodriguez also chipped in with 2 hits apiece.
“We’re trying to get over the hump right now, but I think we’re showing improvement in a lot of areas of the game,” Svagdis said. “I like walking out on the field with this group, because you know they’ll give you their best. I wouldn’t trade them for anybody in the league. We’d rather be 10-2 right now, but to walk out on the field knowing they’re going to give everything they have every day, it’s hard not to want to give that same kind of effort for them.”
Leite’s leadoff single to start the second game was the first of 4 straight hits off California Baptist’s left-handed starter Jesse Arreola, who left after those 4 batters without recording an out. Erb and Delgado each drove in a run with their base hits, and freshman designated hitter Matt Page plated a third with a run-scoring groundout that gave the Cougars a 3-0 lead.
Rodriguez reached on an error to lead off the second inning, and Leite’s 1-out single was followed by a sacrifice bunt from freshman second baseman Sam Murphy to put runners on second and third with 2 outs. The first run of the inning came home on a balk, and Erb pushed the lead to 5-0 with another base hit, a single to left-center that brought Leite home. After a wild pitch moved Erb to second, Delgado drove him in with a single up the middle to make it a 6-0 game in the second inning.
In his first starting assignment of the year, senior righthander Nolan Rudman retired 13 of the first 14 Lancer hitters he faced. The only hit he gave up through the first 4 innings was Zach Esquerra’s leadoff triple in the second inning, which resulted in California Baptist’s first run on Cole Bullard’s sacrifice fly. Rudman struck out the side in the third inning, and he worked himself out of trouble after giving up back-to-back 1-out singles in a scoreless fifth. Rudman gave up 1 run on 4 hits and struck out 7 in 6 innings of work.
“He likes the closer’s role and to have that mentality, but he wasn’t getting enough work each week in that role,” Svagdis said. “We needed to get him some quality back-to-back-to-back innings so he could work on developing some of his offspeed pitches. He’s a competitor and he did a great job against one of the best hitting teams in the league.”
Azusa Pacific added an insurance run in the sixth inning when Erb was hit by pitch with the bases loaded to push the Cougars’ lead to 7-1. The Lancers rallied in their final at-bat, registering 4 hits that found their way through the defense for a pair of 1-out runs off freshman righthander Jacob Cage. However, Cage got Matt Marnati to ground into a game-ending double play to preserve the win.
In the opener, California Baptist put together a 2-out rally for 3 runs in the second inning, scoring 2 runs on Sharif Othman’s home run to right and another on Matt Marnati’s RBI single. The Lancers registered 4 consecutive 2-out hits in the inning, but Marnati ran into the third out of the inning trying to steal third base. An inning later, Esquerra hit his 11th home run of the year, an inside-the-park variety that senior centerfielder Alex Ring was able to get a glove on as he dove face-first into the center-field fence. However, he could not hang on, and the Lancers scored 2 runs on the play to take a 5-0 lead and end Cougar starter Ben Ruder’s afternoon after 2.1 innings.
Josh Manzano welcomed sophomore righthander Cameron Ross to the game with a solo home run to right, his second home run of the series, giving the Lancers a 6-0 lead.
Meanwhile, California Baptist starter Erik Wallace took a 1-hitter into the eighth inning, retiring the Cougar side in order in 4 of the first 6 innings. Sophomore third baseman Jeff West led off the third with a single through the left side, which stood as the only Azusa Pacific hit until sophomore Trevor Lothrop led off the eighth with a single up the middle.
By that time, the Cougars trailed, 10-0, and still only had a runner on first base with 2 outs in the frame. However, junior centerfielder Brent Warren hit an RBI triple into left-center to break up Wallace’s shutout bid, and Delgado hit a 2-run single after Erb drew a walk to give Azusa Pacific a 3-run eighth inning.
Wallace’s final line showed 3 runs on 4 hits with 6 strikeouts in 8 innings of work, and Marnati was 3-for-4 with 3 RBIs to lead a group of 4 Lancers with multiple hits in the opener. Othman, Bullard, and Matt Johnson each tallied 2 hits for California Baptist’s 10-run, 12-hit attack.
With the split, Azusa Pacific is now 12-11 overall, 5-7 in GSAC play, and the Cougars are 4 games better than where they stood after the first 3 conference series against the same opponents a year ago. California Baptist had a season-high 9-game winning streak snapped in Thursday’s loss in Azusa, and the Lancers are 23-4 overall and 10-2 GSAC following Saturday’s split.
“We try not to look back on last year, but that 4-game difference shows that there’s been a lot of development,” Svagdis said. “We’re playing really good teams and walking out of those series feeling like we competed in them.”
Azusa Pacific continues conference play with a 4-game series with the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Point Loma Nazarene, which split its Saturday doubleheader with Concordia to bring a 5-6 GSAC record (10-8 overall) into next week’s series. The Cougars host the first 2 games, playing a pair of 5 p.m. contests on Wednesday and Thursday, March 16-17, and the series concludes with a Saturday, March 19 doubleheader in San Diego.