AZUSA, Calif.-- After 4th ranked Azusa Pacific fell to No. 9 Concordia in the GSAC Tournament, the Cougars shifted their focus to the NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round, which they’ll host this week beginning on Thursday. And now after the NAIA announced the four teams that will join them in the Azusa Bracket, they have a much better idea of what they’re up against in their run for a 6th Avista-NAIA World Series appearance.
Joining the Cougars will be 4th-seeded Arizona Christian, 5th-seeded Menlo, 2nd-seed Shorter (Ga.), and 3rd-seed College of Idaho. The Cougars, who are the 1-seed in the bracket, went 3-1 against this group, defeating Menlo 3-2, 3-2 on back-to-back days in February before splitting a double with Arizona Christian on April 4.
The first game, which will pit Menlo against Arizona Christian, will be at 12 p.m. on Thursday, with the winner advancing to play Azusa Pacific later that night at 7 p.m. Game two will feature Shorter and College of Idaho, with the first pitch for that game slated for 3:30 p.m. Thursday’s and Friday’s schedules will be the same, with games at 12 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 7 p.m. Saturday’s doubleheader starts at 1 p.m. with the second game starting at 5:00 p.m. If the Opening Round isn’t decided by Saturday there will be a one-game championship on Monday, with the time for that contest still to be determined.
1-Azusa Pacific: At-Large No. 2; 44-10, (28-4 GSAC); Opening Round Record 3-2
Azusa Pacific may have started the season a little slow, opening with 2-3 clip out of the gate, but since then almost no team in the country has played as well as the Cougars, who won their 11th GSAC title this year. Azusa Pacific went 12-4 against teams that qualified for the Opening Round, and didn’t lose more than two games in a row all season. Led by GSAC Player of the Year Jordan Leyland, who led the conference in home runs (22), RBIs (69) and slugging (.841), the Cougars boast one of the NAIA’s most prolific offenses, ranking in the top-10 of the country in home runs per game, hits, RBIs, and slugging percentage.
Azusa Pacific has four players with 40+ RBIs in J.C. Aguayo, Matt Kimmel, Johnathan Erb, and Leyland, and six of the team’s everyday starters have a .300+ batting average. And while the Cougars’ offense has been a big reason for the team’s success, their starting pitching has been surprisingly good. Michael Finnigan earned all-GSAC honors after putting together a 6-0 season, while Alan Garcia broke the school’s save record with 15. Colby Gurney led the team in wins with nine, while youngsters Jacob Cage and Zach Hedges are coming off great starts in the GSAC Tournament. Azusa Pacific also ranks 2nd in the NAIA in fielding percentage (.971).
2-Shorter : At-Large No. 7; 37-17, (20-10 SSAC); Opening Round Record 0-0
The 18th ranked Hawks, who will be trekking all the way from Georgia, have relied on pitching all season long. With the NAIA’s 16th best opponent batting average (.245) and 18th most strikeouts (375) Shorter brings a deep staff with five pitchers holding down a sub-4 ERA. Stuart Charleston leads the Hawks with an 8-2 record and an impressive 2.62 ERA despite having pitched just 17.2 innings before March 10 (52.1 since then).
3-College of Idaho : At-Large No. 13; 38-18; Opening Round Record 1-2
The Coyotes also boast a talented pitching staff, with six combined complete games and a combined 3.77 ERA. Taylor Nicholson paces Idaho in ERA with a 2.42 mark, while Chad Yeggy has eaten up 96 innings this year to put together an 8-2 record in 14 starts. Offensively Isaac Garsez leads the way with a .407 batting average, 12 triples (No. 1 in NAIA), and eight home runs.
4- Arizona Christian: Association of Independent Institutions Tournament Champion; 33-21, Opening Round Record 0-0
Not many teams have slowed the Azusa Pacific offense, but if any team has a recipe to stop the Cougars it’s the Firestorm. In their double header with Azusa Pacific on April 4 Arizona Christian held the Cougars to a total of three runs (two earned). Josh Dreier and Jack Sherman each have sub-3 ERAs and a combined 10-4 record. Offensively Arizona Christian brings a lineup with balanced production as no hitter has no more than 40 RBIs, but six have more than 30.
5-Menlo: Unaffiliated Group No. 2 Tournament Champion; 27-25; Opening Round Record 0-0
The Oaks earned their way into the tournament with a 5-4 10-inning win over College of Idaho in the NAIA West Playoff to earn their first postseason appearance in program history. Menlo’s Joey Webb picked up the win in relief, pushing his season record to 5-1 with a 2.56 ERA. In the Oaks’ two games with the Cougars Aguayo led Azusa Pacific to a game-one win with a two-run double in the 9th before Brendan Casey had two RBIs to lead Azusa Pacific past the Oaks.