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April 28, 2011
Joe Reinsch
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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific took control of its playoff destiny, scoring 3 second-inning runs to supplement another quality start from freshman righthander Jacob Cage in a 6-3 road win over Westmont.

Cage, a true freshman who has emerged as the staff ace over the last month of the season, scattered 2 runs on 8 hits with 4 strikeouts to pick up a victory that was crucial to the Cougars’ playoff hopes, which had turned south quickly with a 5-game conference losing streak. Cage’s 7-inning performance, his fifth straight start throwing 6-plus innings while allowing 2 or fewer earned runs, righted the ship just in time for Azusa Pacific.

The victory lifts the Cougars to 25-22 overall, 17-17 GSAC, and it gives them a 2-game cushion over The Master’s College and Vanguard for the sixth and final Golden State Athletic Conference playoff spot; it also puts Azusa Pacific within 1 game of fifth-place Point Loma Nazarene, which lost its second straight game to GSAC leader California Baptist.

Westmont plated a single run in the opening inning, but its 1-0 lead didn’t last long. After a leadoff walk to senior catcher Anthony Delgado, the next 4 hitters each hit safely starting with junior rightfielder Brent Warren’s double to left. Although the baserunner was thrown out at home, senior outfielders Alex Ring and Josh Leite hit back-to-back singles that pushed the first run across, and junior shortstop Anthony Rodriguez laid down a bunt single that scored Ring from third base and give the Cougars a 2-1 lead. Azusa Pacific traded an out for another run, using a sacrifice bunt from freshman third baseman Dusty Sanderson to score Leite from third and make it a 3-1 cushion.

Cage surrendered only 1 more run, a third-inning solo home run to Coby Cress, and he only allowed 1 baserunner over the next 4 frames, which was a 1-out sixth-inning single that he promptly erased with a double-play grounder to shortstop. With Thursday’s win, he is now 7-6 and has earned decisions in each of his past 8 outings. In Cage’s last 6 appearances, he has fired 4 complete games, including a shutout and another combined shutout, posting a 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings with 24 strikeouts during the stretch.

Rodriguez reached base safely in all 4 of his plate appearances, adding a fifth-inning leadoff walk and a seventh-inning leadoff double to a pair of bunt singles in a 3-for-3 performance, his third consecutive multi-hit game. Warren and Leite each went 2-for-4, with Leite scoring 2 runs.

All 3 of the Cougars’ scoring innings opened with the leadoff runner reaching base. In the top of the sixth, Delgado hit a leadoff single that turned into a run after a Warren single and a double-play groundout. Then, in the ninth, Leite led off with a base hit up the middle, taking second base on an error. Another Rodriguez bunt single put runners at first and third, and a run-scoring fielder’s choice groundout was followed by a walk and another bunt single. That loaded the bases with 1 out for junior first baseman Johnathan Erb, who delivered a sacrifice fly to left that pushed the lead to 6-2.

Junior righthander Ben Ruder came on for a 2-inning save after Jordan Bottenfield led off the eighth with a double off Cage. Ruder struck out J.J. Turbin and got a pair of groundouts to end the threat, but Westmont threatened again in the ninth when Colten Christianson led off with an infield single. After back-to-back popups, Brandon Allen hit an RBI double down the right-field line that cut the lead to 6-3, but Ruder got a game-ending groundout to preserve the win.

Christianson was 1 of 3 multi-hit performers for the Warriors, going 3-for-4, but the bottom 4 spots in the Westmont lineup were a combined 2-for-16. Starting pitcher Chris Plance gave up 4 runs, all earned, on 9 hits and 2 walks, and he struck out 1 to fall to 4-4 on the season.

Westmont, which falls to 18-28 overall, 10-23 GSAC, hosts San Diego Christian Friday in a makeup of a previous rainout that eliminates the off-day in the middle of this week’s 4-game GSAC series with Azusa Pacific, which concludes with a noon doubleheader Saturday in Azusa.