AZUSA, Calif. -- The Azusa Pacific bullpen shut down The Master’s, allowing the Cougars to rally from a two-run deficit in the middle innings for a 10-5 win Thursday evening in the opening game of this week’s four-game Golden State Athletic Conference series between the teams.
After the Mustangs got to Cougar starter Jacob Cage for five runs on five hits and four walks in less than five innings, junior righthander Jason Plowman struck out the first batter he faced with two runners on in the fifth to keep the score at 5-3. He then tossed two more shutout frames that allowed Azusa Pacific to take the lead before senior righthander Colby Gurney finished off the game with two more shutout innings.
“The bullpen really picked us up today,” Cougar head coach Paul Svagdis said. “We were fortunate to extend the lead and be able to stick with Colby, who did a great job of settling down and throwing strikes in the ninth inning. We think the bullpen is doing a good job, and we think it could be a strength for us if they continue to focus on a good pitching process. We’re pretty confident in all our pitchers, both the starters and the bullpen, because I think it’s a pretty well-rounded group.”
With The Master’s limited to just one hit over the final four innings, the Azusa Pacific offense came to life against Mustang starter A.J. Work, who entered the game tied for the conference lead in wins with a 5-1 record along with the GSAC’s third-best ERA (2.11). Work gave up five of the 10 hits he allowed in his final two innings of work, and he surrendered three two-out runs in those frames as the Cougars seized the lead for good.
“The guys did a good job executing their hitting plan against Work, who is obviously one of the top pitchers in the league right now,” Svagdis said. “He throws three pitches for strikes consistently, and we knew it would be tough to grind him down but that was our goal. The guys were really focused on our hitting process today, and I thought they did a good job against Work.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, senior leftfielder Johnathan Erb led off with a double down the right-field line, but two batters later he still stood at third base following an infield groundout and popup. Sophomore catcher Matt Page brought Erb home with a bloop single into right-center, cutting the lead to 5-4.
An inning later, Work retired the first two Cougars before putting the potential tying run on base by walking leadoff hitter Sammy Soyring. The next two batters, seniors Brent Warren and Jordan Leyland, each jumped on the first pitch they saw from Work, who was a pitch away from a perfect 1-2-3 seventh inning but ended up giving up the lead on back-to-back pitches. After Soyring walked with a full count, Warren smacked a double to left field to score Soyring, and Leyland ripped a single back up the middle to put the Cougars in front, 6-5.
“The game gives you confidence, and when you are rewarded with wins that just creates more confidence,” said Svagdis, whose club has now won nine straight games. “I think it gives the guys a sense of calm to know that we can score runs and we just have to hang in there. We have to pitch and keep the game close in those games where we don’t get out of the gate early offensively, but if we can do that, I think the guys have confidence.”
Azusa Pacific added four runs in the eighth inning, including a pair who scored on Leyland’s two-run double to left-center that moved him into the GSAC’s RBI lead with 37. Leyland was two-for-five with three RBIs, and senior designated hitter J.C. Aguayo also turned in a two-for-five, three-RBI performance for a Cougar offense that generated 10 runs on 15 hits in the victory. Erb collected three hits, one of six Azusa Pacific hitters with two or more hits.
The Master’s took an early lead in the second, when a two-out infield single loaded the bases to allow Jonathan Popadics’ two-out single to give the Mustangs an early 2-0 lead. The Cougars answered with Aguayo’s run-scoring single up the middle that scored Matt Kimmel from second base to cut the lead to 2-1. Another Aguayo single in the fourth scored a pair and gave Azusa Pacific a short-lived 3-2 lead.
A leadoff walk to Popadics led to Tanner Leighton’s two-run homer in the top of the fifth, bringing the lead back to The Master’s, which added an insurance run after two more walks from Cage led to Bryan Lucas’ one-out RBI single up the middle. Lucas was the only Mustang hitter with more than one hit, registering a two-for-four, one-RBI performance.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 19-5 overall and 9-1 in GSAC play, while The Master’s drops to 20-7 overall, 9-4 GSAC. The Cougars host the second game of the four-game series on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. before the series is scheduled to conclude with a Saturday doubleheader in Santa Clarita.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed & edited by Rob Small)