AZUSA, Calif.-- What a year it’s been for Azusa Pacific baseball. While the NAIA’s 4th ranked Cougars have been putting together one the program’s best seasons in years two alums have hit the big times of Major League Baseball. Kirk Nieuwenhuis (’08) and Stephen Vogt (’07) each opened the season on Major League rosters, and became the first duo in school history to start for a Major League ball club on the same day on April 11th.
“I’m just really excited for both Stephen and Kirk. What an awesome week for both of them to be called up for opening day. I can’t say enough about who they are as men and what they’ve meant to the baseball program over the years,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “When I heard from Stephen I got goose bumps. I was on the phone and we were both jumping up and down like two kids on Christmas morning. Then two days later I got a call from Kirk with the same news. It’s pretty amazing.”
Vogt, who was named the Tampa Bay Rays Minor League Player of the Year in 2011, didn’t start in the Rays’ first game on April 4th, but did received his first at bat in the Major Leagues with when he stepped in for Elliot Johnson in the 8th inning as a pinch hitter during Tampa Bay’s 7-6 win over the Yankees. The former NAIA all-American and GSAC Player of the Year has been with the club all season, playing primarily as the team’s designated hitter.
On April 13 Vogt started in Boston’s home opener at Fenway Park, a place where Svagdis grew up rooting on the Red Sox. With the Azusa Pacific baseball team in between series Svagdis flew back to Boston to watch his former catcher start against his hometown team on a day that is almost sacred in the city.
“It was an absolute thrill to walk into Fenway Park and know that I was walking in the park to watch one of my players. It was almost indescribable,” said Svagdis.
Nieuwenhuis didn’t play in the New York Mets opener on April 6th, but notched his first big league appearance the next day starting at centerfield. In the game, which the Mets won 4-2 over the Atlanta Braves, he recorded his first major league hit on an infield single before tacking on another base hit to go 2-for-4 in his first start for New York. His impressive performance was just a preview of how he would kick off his MLB career.
Through 12 games Nieuwenhuis leads all rookies (minimum 25 plate appearances) in batting average (.375), on base percentage (.444), ranks third in slugging (.571) and second in on-base plus slugging (.976). His two doubles position him third amongst first year players while his six runs trail only Cincinnati’s Zack Cozart. The Cougar alum is currently second on the Mets in batting average, behind perennial all-star third baseman David Wright.
Yesterday New York skipper Terry Collins gambled with Nieuwenhuis in the lead-off spot, a rarity for the 6-3 outfielder, and it paid off in a big way as Nieuwenhuis went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a walk and three runs atop the order.
Nieuwenhuis and Vogt became the sixth and seventh Azusa Pacific alums to reach the Major League level in the program’s 52-year history. Vogt was drafted in the 12th round of the 2007 MLB amateur draft by the Rays, while Nieuwenhuis was picked by the Mets in the 3rd round of the ’08 draft. There are currently nine former Azusa Pacific players on professional baseball rosters.