AZUSA, Calif.-- This season the NAIA’s 4th ranked Azusa Pacific has built a five game lead atop the Golden State Athletic Conference standings primarily because of its high powered offense. But on Thursday night the Cougars used a different weapon to shave their magic number for the conference crown down to two games thanks to a strong pitching performance from the Azusa Pacific staff.
Michael Finnigan gave up just five hits and two earned runs, both solo shots, through 7.2 innings before handing the ball to the bullpen which shut the Westmont bats down without a hit to help the Cougars notch a 4-2 win over the Warriors for their sixth GSAC-series opening win of the year.
“It’s always nice to get off to a good start. Both teams pitched well, it was a really good baseball game and we were just fortunate to come up on top tonight,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “Finnigan did great. What a quality start for us. When you’re pitching in a tight game against another good pitcher you need your guy to go toe-to-toe and he certainly did that for us.”
Finnigan, who has been one of the conference’s top pitchers all year, improved to 6-0 and kept his team-leading ERA to 2.27 after striking out two batters and stranding three Warrior runners. The junior left hander was also aided by a few impressive defensive plays, most notably on a play at the plate to end the second inning.
With one out, the game tied 0-0, and courtesy runner Steven Motush on third base Brent Warren positioned himself under a shallow fly ball in right field with Motush tagging at third. After making the catch Warren threw a bullet to catcher Matt Page, who blocked the plate perfectly to keep the runner from scoring and get the Cougars out of the inning unscathed.
From that point on the Warrior bats registered just four more hits, and scored on a pair of home runs in the 4th and 5th inning. Matt Winkler, who posted his first win of the year on Tuesday, took over in the 8th with the Cougars holding on to a 4-2 edge. The junior struck out one batter and didn’t give up a hit, but did put two runners on with two outs in the 9th on a walk and a hit batter. Colby Gurney made his 20th appearance of the season and punched out the only batter he faced to register his second save this year.
“The bullpen did a terrific job today. I was real pleased with Winkler taking care of their No. 4 hitter in a tight situation and Gurney coming in at the end and getting that strikeout,” said Svagdis.
On the offensive end Azusa Pacific scored four unearned runs against the Warrior staff. Warren went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI to lead the Cougars, who tallied only five hits on the night. Sammy Soyring and Jonathan Erb each went 1-for-2 with a run, while J.C. Aguayo registered his lone RBI on a sac fly in the bottom of the 5th. Page drove in one run on one hit, and worked four full-counts and twice got on base after nine-pitch at bats.
The Cougars did most of their damage in the 4th inning when they took advantage of a gaggle of miscues by Westmont. In the frame Warrior pitcher Timothy Leary recorded two wild pitches and a balk while catcher Brandon Gildea’s passed ball put Erb on third base with one out. Erb would later score on Aguayo’s sac fly before Hunter Christenson’s throwing error plated two more for Azusa Pacific, giving the Cougars a 3-1 edge.
In the top of the 5th Westmont cut the deficit to one run on William Barring’s first home run this season, but the Cougars scored once more in the 5th thanks to more mistakes by the Warriors. In the bottom of the inning Westmont had two passed balls, putting Soyring in scoring position before Warren gave Azusa Pacific a 4-2 lead on a single to center.
Westmont would threaten in the 9th, putting runners on second and third with two outs, but Gurney ended any hopes of a comeback for the Warriors with a three pitch strikeout to secure the 4-2 victory.
The win means that the Cougars can clinch a share of its first GSAC title as early as tomorrow if they defeat Westmont and The Master’s beats Concordia. Azusa Pacific hosts the Warriors tomorrow for senior night, with the first pitch schedule for 6 p.m.