RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific continued its surprising run through the winner’s bracket of the 2011 Golden State Athletic Baseball Postseason Tournament, pulling off an improbable 6-4 win over Fresno Pacific with a 4-run ninth-inning rally Wednesday afternoon in Riverside.
Fresno Pacific closer Michael Rivera balked home the winning run after sophomore leftfielder Trevor Lothrop tied the game with a 2-out RBI double down the left-field line that put runners at second and third in the top of the ninth. Rivera never came set in his stretch position before delivering a pitch to freshman pinch-hitter Matt Page, resulting in the balk that gave the Cougars a 5-4 lead. Page beat out an infield single, scoring Lothrop from third base for the final 2-run margin.
“I wasn’t having a great day at the plate, so I just wanted to get a good swing on the ball and make something positive happen for us,” Lothrop said. “It takes 27 outs to beat the Cougars. We stick together as a team and know that we’re in it until the end, because as long as we keep fighting, there’s always a chance.”
The ninth-inning 2-out rally marked the seventh time in Azusa Pacific’s past 14 games that the game-winning run has been scored in the winning team’s final turn at-bat.
“Nobody sank their head when we gave up the lead,” Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis said. “They don’t do that; they haven’t done it all year, and they didn’t do it today. Their big rally cry this year is that it takes 27 outs to take the Cougars down, and it took all 27 for us to get the win today.”
More importantly, the victory keeps Azusa Pacific in the winner’s bracket of the 6-team double-elimination tournament, and the sixth-seeded Cougars will take on fourth-seeded Concordia in Thursday’s 9 a.m. matchup whose winner will play for the GSAC Tournament title on Friday. Concordia defeated Biola, 11-8, in Wednesday’s afternoon contest, and Biola takes on Point Loma Nazarene following the 9 a.m. winner’s bracket matchup. Top-seeded California Baptist and third-seeded Fresno Pacific have been eliminated following the second postseason loss for both teams Wednesday.
With runners on first and third in the top of the ninth, senior centerfielder Alex Ring lifted a sacrifice fly to center that cut the lead to 4-3 but left the tying run at first base with 2 outs in the ninth. After senior designated hitter Josh Leite dropped a single into shallow left field that moved Joseph Daris to third base, Lothrop lifted a fly ball down the left-field line that dropped in fair territory in the left-field corner. The 2-out double scored Daris to tie the game at 4-4, but Leite stumbled approaching third and had to hold up there before scoring the go-ahead run an instant later on Rivera’s balk.
“They play hard for each other, they’re selfless, and they play together as a team,” Svagdis said. “Every day, someone is a hero; today it was Lothrop, Plowman, and Cage, so I’m just proud of the way they played. They’re a lot of fun to be around.”
Junior first baseman Johnathan Erb was 3-for-5 for the second straight game, and Ring went 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs to lead Azusa Pacific’s offense. Leite was 2-for-4, his second straight multi-hit game, and junior second baseman Sammy Soyring was 2-for-5 in the leadoff spot, along with an adventurous play on defense in the seventh inning where he bobbled a leadoff popup in the infield but secured the out with his bare right hand.
Freshman righthander Jacob Cage turned in his sixth consecutive quality start, scattering 12 hits for 4 total runs, although only 2 were earned, and he struck out 7 without walking a batter in 7.1 innings. Sophomore righthander Jason Plowman took over for the final 1.2 innings, retiring 4 straight including a pair of ninth-inning strikeouts to finish the game and pick up the win.
“They always say that it takes 27 outs, so I guess today’s game just goes to show that you have to give us all 27 of those outs,” Cage said. “The close games we’ve played gave us some momentum (entering the postseason), because even when we’re down we know we can come back. We’ve battled all year, and some of that hard work seems like it’s finally paying off.”
Cage worked himself out of several jams, using the Cougars’ defense against the Fresno Pacific running game to erase leadoff hits in the second and third innings. In the second, the first 2 Sunbird hitters singled off Cage, but senior catcher Anthony Delgado threw out Karlan Andrews at third on an attempted double steal for the first out before Cage picked Patrick Bariteau off second base for the second out. David Hawes led off the third inning with a single, but he was thrown out as Trent Soares struck out swinging for a double play.
“I can’t say enough about Jacob,” Svagdis said. “He’s a freshman that pitches like a senior. His teammates love him, the coaching staff loves him, and he’s a guy you want on the mound with the game on the line. I was happy to see us pull it through for him, because he’s pitched in some big games down the stretch where we haven’t been able to score runs for him.”
Meanwhile, Azusa Pacific got an early 2-run advantage with a pair of 2-out runs in the top of the third inning. With 2 outs and runners on first and second, junior rightfielder Brent Warren drew a walk to load the bases for Ring, who beat out an infield single to second that allowed 2 runs to score.
Fresno Pacific got those 2 runs back in the bottom of the fourth, trimming the lead in half on Tyler Pryor’s leadoff home run to right. Andrew Douglas also scored in the inning on an error, taking an extra base on a Karlan Andrews single to left that was mishandled in the outfield to tie the game at 2-2. An inning later, Pryor drove in the go-ahead run, cashing in a Hawes leadoff double with a 2-out single to right that pushed the Sunbirds in front, 3-2.
In the eighth, Scott Laird reached on a throwing error to lead off the inning, and Pryor and Douglas recorded consecutive singles that pushed another unearned run across. A groundout to first base moved runners to second and third with 1 out, at which point Plowman replaced Cage. Plowman loaded the bases when he hit Andrews with a pitch, but he escaped with no further damage when he got Rivera to ground out into a double play to freshman third baseman Sam Murphy, who stepped on third base for the force out and threw across the diamond to first base to complete the double play.
The Sunbirds were led by 3-for-4 efforts from Pryor and Douglas, and starting pitcher Matt Mazzoni turned in a solid 7-inning performance, scattering 2 runs on 8 hits with 4 walks and 3 strikeouts before giving way to the bullpen. Greg Kilgore fired a perfect eighth inning, but Rivera was unable to add to his team-leading 6 saves with the 4-run ninth. Rivera, who picked up a win and a save to help Fresno Pacific win 3 of 4 against Azusa Pacific in the season series, fell to 3-2 on the year.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 28-23 overall, while Fresno Pacific exits the GSAC Postseason Tournament with consecutive defeats to fall to 30-19 overall. With a No. 15 national ranking, the Sunbirds are practically assured of an at-large berth into 1 of the 9 NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round sites.