AZUSA, Calif.-- It’s still early, but after Saturday’s home sweep of the NAIA’s 2nd ranked Concordia, which sealed Azusa Pacific’s fourth straight Golden State Athletic Conference series win, the Cougars have to be happy with where they’re at midway through the GSAC season. Azusa Pacific (24-6; 13-2) pushed its lead in the GSAC standings to 3.5 games after the Cougars took their third straight over the Eagles (20-11; 10-6) with a 7-3 win in game one and an 11-6 victory in game two to take three of four in the series. And while the Cougars, who boast the GSAC’s most prolific offense, put another 18 runs on the board on Saturday, it was the team’s pitching that shined early.
Just a day removed from Friday’s bullpen draining 13-inning marathon senior Ben Ruder got the ball from the coaching staff and didn’t give it up, tossing nine innings of impressive baseball. He allowed three earned runs, and gave up no walks against a Concordia team that ranks second in the conference in runs. The right hander may have struck out only two batters, but he threw 74 of his 100 pitches for strikes and gave up just three hits through six scoreless frames before Concordia tabbed all of its runs after Azusa Pacific took control with a 6-0 lead. Ruder improved to 5-0 this season while the Cougars moved to 14-1 at home this year.
“It’s the most gratifying feeling after games like this. They’re the defending national champions and the way we played against them was great. I’m so proud of everyone, it’s just awesome,” said Ruder. “The coaches were super positive. It was a great feeling. I was just trying to do it for my team. They did a great job defensively to make it easy on me.”
25 of Ruder’s outs came by way of the Azusa Pacific defense, 14 of which on groundouts, most notably on a spectacular play by short stop Anthony Rodriguez to end the 5th. On the play Rodriguez chased a ball up the middle, snagged it just before the outfield grass, spun to his left and gunned out the player at first to strand an Eagle runner to keep Ruder’s line clean.
“After that 13-inning game yesterday both teams used a lot of the bullpen. To have Ben come out and throw a complete game like he did was great. His fastball and changeup were working really well,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “We were excited to give him the ball on Saturday after coming back from two tough games. He picked us up big time. We were able save that bullpen for game two.”
And while Ruder stepped up, the Cougar bats continued to do their part, plating seven runs on 14 hits. Brent Warren got Azusa Pacific on the board in the first inning with his second home run in as many days. Warren finished 4-for-5 and scored three runs, while J.C. Aguayo, Jordan Leyland, and Brendan Casey each had two hits and two RBIs in the win.
In the second game Michael Finnigan got his second start in five days, and pitched well, allowing three runs (one earned) in 4.2 innings of work to collect his third win of the season. In the game Azusa Pacific opened things up with a huge eight-run fourth inning after both teams failed to get anything going in the first three frames. In the 4th the Cougars drove in four runs with two outs, a staple of this season’s team, and had 10 hits; more than the Eagles could muster in the outing (9).
Seven Azusa Pacific players registered RBIs in the game, while Matt Kimmel, fresh off last night’s 13th inning grand slam, went 3-for-4 with two runs and an RBI. Leyland drove in a game-high two runs while Johnathan Erb and Casey had two hits apiece. Joseph Daris, who was the lost hero in last night’s win as he twice came up with big hits to put Azusa Pacific in position for the win, scored two runs as the team’s primary courtesy runner. The Cougars had 15 hits and again kept their strikeout total low with just five Ks.
After the win Azusa Pacific improved to 14-1 at home and 13-2 in conference play to move to 3.5 games up on the rest of the teams in the early GSAC standings. To make matters better for the Cougars is the fact that they have the tie-breaker against the 2-through-four teams in the standings (Concordia, Biola, and The Master’s), but at this point in the season Svagdis is reluctant to even worry about how the conference race is stacking up.
“I don’t know how big it is other than our goal is to try win a conference series every time we step on the field. We were fortunate to come out with three of those four and that’s our goal each weekend,” said Svagdis. “Where we are in the standings doesn’t matter until the end of April to be perfectly honest.”
Azusa Pacific, which hasn’t dropped a GSAC series, opens up its fifth of the year against Vanguard next week. The Cougars host the Lions on Thursday and Friday at 5 p.m. before traveling to Costa Mesa for a Saturday double header.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed & edited by Rob Small)