MORE PHOTOS TO COME
AZUSA, Calif.-- The Cougars fought all year for the opportunity to play for a chance at the NAIA World Series on their home field, a place they went 24-0 at in the regular season. But after 4th ranked Azusa Pacific dropped two of four in the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament, and followed that up with a game one loss to Menlo in the NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round, the Cougars’ bid for a sixth World Series appearance looked bleak.
Tonight Azusa Pacific took one big step towards changing that, posting a convincing 8-2 win over Arizona Christian (35-23) to stave off elimination behind four home runs and a gutsy pitching performance from freshman Zach Hedges. The Cougars (45-11) got a pair of homers from Matt Kimmel, while Hedges tossed seven innings of one-run ball to extend Azusa Pacific’s season by at least one day.
“I thought our guys did a good job if bouncing back from yesterday,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “Hedges is a pretty mentally tough kid to go out in a very difficult circumstance and pitch one-run ball. He knows his stuff is good, he’s going to get ahead of hitters, and he’s going to make them earn everything they get. I also thought our guys swung it really well today. Kimmel did a good job and got us on the board.”
Kimmel finished the night 3-for-5 with two home runs and three RBIs. In the top of the 2nd the sophomore opened the scoring when he poked a 2-2 offering over the left field fence, scoring Johnathan Erb, who led the frame off with a double, and giving the Cougars a 2-0 edge. Kimmel also led off the 8th with his ninth home run of the year, opening a three-run inning that extended Azusa Pacific’s lead to 6-1 with an offensive display that Cougar fans had been more accustomed to seeing.
“Today we came out more focused. We played like a team and played every pitch hard like it was our last. I think it was great practice playing with our backs against the wall last week,” said Kimmel.
The Cougars had 15 hits on the night, with Erb and Matt Page pitching in with roundtrippers. Erb scored twice and went 3-for-4, finishing a triple away from the cycle with two RBIs while Page hit 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Azusa Pacific went 7-for-16 with runners on base, and left seven runners on in the game.
Hedges, who improved to 7-0, dominated early. The freshman didn’t give up a run until the 4th when the Firestorm got runners on 2nd and 3rd with a double steal before getting a cheap run on a wild pitch. Hedges struck out eight batters, throwing 71 of his 109 pitches for strikes. The Damien High School graduate also did well from the stretch, holding Arizona Christian to 2-for-13 with runners on base despite playing in his most meaningful and pressure-packed games in his young career.
“It’s another game of baseball nothing has changed. The defense made great plays for me. I was working on my fastball, letting it run, working inside,” said Hedges. “The game plan was to keep throwing strikes, letting the defense work. We have to make sure we fill up the zone and not be too careful.”
And while Hedges looked beyond his years from the mound, the defense behind him did a good job of picking him up, most notably when Brent Warren, a GSAC Gold Glove winner, threw a seed to Page at home to get Kendall Konopka out on a play at the plate to end the 6th inning. Just a day removed from a dreadful four-error performance, the Cougars didn’t commit an error.
Jesus Del Rosario pitched one inning of relief, giving up a solo shot in the 8th before Alan Garcia took over in the 9th and allowed just one harmless hit.
Azusa Pacific, which split with Arizona Christian earlier this season, played the game as the visiting team per postseason rules, and improved to 27-3 at the Cougar Baseball Complex. The Cougars plated two runs in the 2nd, and added another in the 4th on a sacrifice fly from Anthony Rodriguez to go ahead 3-0. Rodriguez drove in one run on the night and had one hit.
In the bottom of the 4th the Firestorm got one run back after a double steal put Konopka on third base, where he would then score on a wild pitch from Hedges. Then after Hedges and Dylan Waugh traded zeroes over the next three frames Azusa Pacific broke through for more in the 8th. Kimmel kicked off the three-run inning with a homer into the left field net. J.C. Aguayo followed that with a double down the left field line before Page hit a two-out bomb over the right field fence. The home run was Page’s eighth of the year.
In the bottom of the 8th Alex Glenn hit his first pump of the season, sending a 2-1 offering over the net off of Del Rosario. In the top of the 9th Azusa Pacific added two more insurance runs. Brent Warren hit a leadoff single through the left side before Erb flexed his muscle on a no-doubt-about-it blast to right field for his ninth shot of the season; putting him in a three-way tied for second on the team with Kimmel and Aguayo.
In the bottom half Garcia, pitching in a non-save situation, gave up one harmless base hit as the Arizona Christian bats went down quietly just a few hours after Eddie Aplin hit a walk-off two run home run against Shorter (Ga.) to give the Firestorm their first-ever NAIA postseason win.
With the win Azusa Pacific stays alive and will face Menlo at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday in the team’s second straight elimination game. If the Cougars can pull off the win they’ll have a 5:00 p.m. date with College of Idaho, which is currently one win away from making a trip to the World Series.
Azusa Pacific is 3-1 in three elimination games this year (including the GSAC tournament). If the Cougars are going to make their final trip to Lewiston, Idaho for the World Series they’ll have to add three more wins to that total.