AZUSA, Calif.-- Winning in the postseason is hard enough. Winning in the postseason while committing four errors against a red-hot team that’s recorded five upsets in the last week just to get to this point...well that’s nearly impossible. The 4th ranked Cougars found that out today, falling 11-7 to Menlo in the NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round after the Oaks took advantage of a plethora of Azusa Pacific miscues.
The Cougars (44-11), who are one of nine NAIA Opening Round hosts throughout the country, made four costly errors, leading to five unearned runs as the Oaks (31-25) posted their second upset of the day, handing the top-seeded Cougars only their 3rd defeat of the season at home as Menlo improved to 2-0 in the Opening Round in its first NAIA postseason appearance.
Azusa Pacific, which entered today as one of the NAIA’s top defenses, holding down the nation’s second best fielding percentage (.971), had a 4-1 edge after the 3rd before the Oaks rattled off nine of the next 10 runs to take a commanding 10-5 lead in the 8th. The Cougars got two runs across in the bottom half of the 8th, but Menlo’s Kyer Vega put down all four of the batters he faced to notch his first save of the year.
Starting pitcher Jacob Cage gave up seven runs (five earned) and eight hits in five innings, and made two crucial throwing errors on pickoff attempts. The sophomore airmailed a throw to first baseman Jordan Leyland in the 5th, letting the runner advance all the way to third with one out before the Oaks cashed in with a sacrifice fly. In the 6th Cage threw an errant ball into centerfield on a pickoff play aimed at C.J. Dailey, who reached on a throwing error from Casey to open the inning, putting runners on second and third before Menlo came through again with a two-run double to take a 6-5 lead that would hold throughout. The four errors for the Cougars were a season-high.
Azusa Pacific finished with 10 hits as Sammy Soyring recorded a game-high three RBIs, all of which came on a go-ahead bomb over the left field fence just before Brent Warren followed up the second baseman with a shot into the right field net in the 3rd. J.C. Aguayo and Brendan Casey each had 8th inning RBIs, while Casey scored on a Matt Page base hit after tripling in the 4th.
Matt Kimmel went 1-for-4 with a run, but made quite possibly the play of the year when he tracked down a deep fly ball from Collin Forgey and made an over the shoulder grab just as he hit the fence in right center, falling to the ground, saving at least one run, and putting an end to a dreadful frame the saw the Oaks score three runs on two hits and two errors.
The Cougars, who trailed from the 6th inning on, got the tying run to the plate in the 8th as Page came to bat with runners on first and second. But the catcher’s come-backer would be wrangled by Vega to end a two-run frame. Azusa Pacific left only four runners on base and had just five strikeouts while the Oaks left six runners on and finished with 12 hits.
Prior to last week’s Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament Azusa Pacific was 24-0 at home, but over the last five games the Cougars are just 2-3, with two of the losses coming in the opening game against the tournament’s lowest seed.
The upset was the third of the day in the Azusa bracket, as the lower seed in each game advanced with a win. Menlo started the day similarly to how it ended it, scoring four runs (all unearned) in the first inning of game one before going on to defeat No. 4 Arizona Christian 8-5. In game two College of Idaho held off a stubborn 18th ranked Shorter (Ga.) team, hanging on for an 8-6 win despite a late three-run rally from the Hawks.
With the loss the Cougars, who could have advanced to their sixth NAIA World Series with three consecutive wins, will now have to get to Lewiston, Idaho the hard way, needing to win four straight games to clinch one of 10 spots in the field. Azusa Pacific will play the winner of tomorrow afternoon’s Shorter-Arizona Christian game in the tournament’s second elimination contest at 7:00 p.m.
The Oaks, who earned an automatic bid after winning four straight games to claim the NAIA-West Grouping Tournament Championship, can now reach the NAIA World Series with two straight wins. They will face the 1998 national champions, College of Idaho, at 3:30 p.m. on Friday.