AZUSA, Calif.-- Playing for the third time in three days, and in their second straight elimination game, the NAIA’s 4th ranked Cougars turned to a somewhat unlikely source, handing the ball to a freshman pitcher that hasn’t thrown in nearly a month. The move paid off as Zach Hedges held the Biola bats in check, allowing just two earned runs in 7.2 innings of work to help advance Azusa Pacific (44-9) to the final day of the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament with an 8-2 victory.
Hedges, who put together a 5-0 record with a sub-4 ERA in his rookie campaign before missing the last three weeks with pain in his elbow, allowed five of eight leadoff hitters to reach base, but held the Eagles to just 1-for-13 with runners on base. Biola (26-27) grounded out 15 times with Hedges on the hill and mustered just two runs on seven hits.
“I though Hedges did a great job today coming off of some rest. We were excited to get him out there and he did a terrific job today,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “He pitched to his strengths. He’s a sinker ball guy...fills the strike zone up and limits free passes. He picked back up where he left of in a real pressure moment. I was impressed with his mental toughness today.”
Hedges struck out two batters and finished with two walks on 90 pitches, throwing 58 for strikes. Jesus Del Rosario replaced him in the 8th inning with two outs and recorded four straight outs to end the game on just 11 pitches. Offensively the Cougars picked up where they left off last night, notching nine hits and eight runs.
Johnathan Erb registered four RBIs, three with two outs and two on a 1st inning home run that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good. The senior left fielder also drove in a run on a bases loaded infield single in the 7th. Matt Kimmel finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs to aid the cause, while the Cougars’ 1-4 batters combined to score seven of the eight runs.
“Johnathan did a great job, I was excited for him, he’s senior and for him to get us on the board early was nice. All we want are quality at bats and he’s been doing that all year,” said Svagdis.
Brent Warren followed up last night’s performance with a double and two runs, while Jordan Leyland went 1-for-3 with a run. J.C. Aguayo finished 2-for-4 and leadoff hitter Sammy Soyring got on base twice, and scored a run both times.
Azusa Pacific struck first when Erb capitalized on 2-0 offering, driving the ball over the left field wall ona two-run homer in the bottom of the 1st. In the top of the 2nd Biola responded as Mac Sullivan hit a leadoff double, moved to third on a groundout, and then scored on a dribbler to short to make it a 2-1 game.
In the bottom of the 3rd Azusa Pacific added to its advantage, scoring on an Erb fielder’s choice and again on a single through the right side from Kimmel. But in similar fashion the Eagles followed the Cougars’ two-run frame with another small-ball run. Drake Fages led off with a double to right center, was advanced on a groundout to first base, and then scored on a groundout to second to make it a 4-2 ballgame. After that however, the Sledgehammer (as his teammates refer to him) would give up just two more hits to Biola.
In the top of the 6th, after the Eagles got runners on first and second with no outs, Hedges dialed in, getting one of the GSAC’s most dangerous hitters, Fages, to fly out before forcing a groundout and a strikeout to get out of the inning unscathed.
In the bottom of the 7th the Cougars broke the game wide open, scoring four runs on three hits and a Biola error. Matt Page kicked off the inning with a single. Then after Soyring and Warren were beaned to load the bags with one out, Erb drilled a 2-1 pitch right at the second baseman, who air-mailed an ill-advised throw to plate a pair of Cougars. With two on and two outs Kimmel then singled up the middle for two more Azusa Pacific runs, giving the home team an 8-2 edge that would hold.
With the win, the Cougars’ fourth over Biola this season, Azusa Pacific advances to take on Concordia, which is 3-0 so far in the tournament, on Friday at noon. If the Cougars win they’ll have a rematch with Concordia 40-minutes following the result to decide the tournament champion. Concordia needs just one win to claim its second straight GSAC tournament title.