RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Senior designated hitter Josh Leite smashed 2 solo home runs, his second tying the game at 6-6 in the eighth inning to ensure another nail biting finish that resulted in a 7-6 Biola win on a ninth-inning squeeze bunt for a walk-off victory that ended Azusa Pacific’s season with a pair of 1-run losses Thursday in the GSAC Postseason Tournament.
Senior catcher Anthony Delgado also homered in his final game for the Cougars, and Azusa Pacific pulled off a bizarre triple play to get out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the seventh inning that allowed Leite to tie the game with his leadoff homer in the eighth. However, Biola opened the bottom of the ninth with a Benji Sutherland triple, and he scored 2 batters later when Garrett Leon dropped a squeeze bunt down the third-base line that scored Sutherland to end the game.
For the eighth time in the past 16 games, Azusa Pacific was involved in a game won by a team in its final at-bat, and it came just 24 hours after the Cougars rallied for 4 ninth-inning runs to eliminate the NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Fresno Pacific from the conference tournament. Biola advances to Friday’s GSAC Tournament championship, where it must record 2 wins against Concordia, which is a perfect 3-0 thus far in the tournament.
“We won some tough games this year, and we lost some tough games, so I’m not surprised that we hung in there,” Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis said. “This was a tough group, and that toughness starts with the seniors.”
With the score tied at 5-5, Biola loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh on a Michael Andrews single followed by consecutive walks to Garrett Leon and Drake Fages. On a 1-0 offering from sophomore reliever Cameron Ross, Biola first baseman Mac Sullivan hit a low liner into shallow centerfield. Senior centerfielder Alex Ring left his feet for what was ruled a catch, causing confusion among the Biola baserunners who thought it had dropped to the outfield grass just before Ring could secure the catch. Ring got the ball back to the infield, where junior shortstop Anthony Rodriguez tagged second base and threw to third base, completing what was initially ruled a triple play.
Following several minutes of discussion between the 3-man umpiring crew and Biola head coach John Verhoeven, Andrews was ruled to have scored after tagging up at third base, but Leon was doubled off second base and Fages was ruled out on the play, as well, for leaving the baseline when both teams cleared the field. When all was settled, Biola had taken the 6-5 lead, and the Cougars were out of the jam with an inning-ending triple play.
“When we got that play to go our way, I started to think maybe this was our day,” Svagdis said. “That generated some life, and when Leite tied it up, that play became even bigger.”
After Leite tied the game with his second home run of the game, another solo shot to right, Azusa Pacific loaded the bases with 2 outs but couldn’t push another run across on an inning-ending groundout. The Cougars also had a runner in scoring position with 2 outs in the ninth, but Biola escaped unscathed again with another groundout.
In the bottom of the ninth, Benji Sutherland led off with a line drive into shallow center, where Ring tracked it down with a good early jump and a well-timed dive. However, somewhere along the way, Ring lost the ball in the glare of the sun, which was setting directly into his field of vision, and the ball missed the glove and rolled to the wall in left-center field for a leadoff triple. Freshman reliever Matt Kimmel, making just his third pitching appearance of the year, got Andrews to pop up into shallow left field for the first out. After firing a first-pitch strike to Leon, Kimmel’s 0-1 offering was bunted in the air along the third-base line, bouncing once before third baseman Sam Murphy could get to it and make a desperate underhand flip home to try to beat Sutherland, who slid safely across home plate before Delgado could apply the tag.
Rodriguez turned in another multi-hit game, his seventh in the past 9 games, going 3-for-4 after he went 4-for-5 in Thursday’s first game. Leite was 2-for-5 with the aforementioned home runs, his third and fourth of the year, and Delgado was 1-for-3 with his fourth home run of the season. All 3 of them batted .450 or better over the course of 4 GSAC Tournament contests, with Rodriguez leading the way with a .529 (9-for-17) tourney performance. Leite was 8-for-17 (.471), and Delgado was 5-for-11 (.455) with 3 extra-base hits while reaching base another 8 times (6 walks and 2 hit by pitch) to post a .650 on-base percentage for the week.
“The theme this year for me is pride in how the guys played.” Svagdis said. “We talk to the seniors each year about leaving a legacy of making the program better than where it was when they started. People look at the win-loss record and championships as being better or worse, but that’s certainly not how I evaluate it. The seniors this year were just outstanding in every way, and what hurts the most about ending is you don’t get to show back up to the yard with those guys and this team again.”
Azusa Pacific led all the way until the sixth inning, scoring twice in the first inning and using Leite’s first solo homer to post another 2-run frame in the fourth. Delgado led off the fifth with an opposite-field solo home run over the right-field fence that gave the Cougars a 5-2 lead. Drake Fages accounted for both of Biola’s first 2 runs, smashing a solo home run to left to lead off the second before hammering a leadoff double down the left-field line and later scoring in the fourth.
Biola drew even with a 3-run sixth, starting with Leon’s leadoff solo home run. Fages drew a walk, but the next 2 Eagles were retired on popups to give the Cougars a chance to escape the inning with a 2-run lead. Brent Opdyke doubled to left-center to score Fages and cut the lead to 5-4, and Johnny Farrington brought Opdyke around to score the tying run with a single to right.
Junior first baseman Johnathan Erb led off the seventh with a double to left-center, knocking Biola starter Alex Brueske out of the game, but he was left on the bases when Kyle Atkins struck out Delgado and retired the next 2 hitters on groundouts to keep the game tied at 5-5 heading into the adventurous bottom of the seventh.
Fages was 2-for-2 with his 18th home run of the year to go with 2 walks and 3 runs scored for Biola, and he was on deck when Leon brought in the game-winner on the squeeze bunt. Opdyke and Andrews each added 2-hit performances, and Atkins recorded 1 of the game’s 2 strikeouts while scattering 1 run on 3 hits over the final 3 innings.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific ends the 2011 season with a 28-25 record, while Biola improves to 36-19 overall.