AZUSA, Calif.-- After turning a double play to get Azusa Pacific out of a bases loaded jam, senior second baseman Sammy Soyring, who made numerous game-changing plays on Saturday, ran back to the dugout yelling, ‘That’s The Cougs!’ His statement couldn’t have been more fitting as the 4th ranked Cougars won back-to-back elimination games to advance to the NAIA Baseball Opening Round Championship game with a pair of wins that reminded everyone in attendance of the Azusa Pacific team that went 24-0 at home during the regular season.
In game one the bracket’s top-seeded Cougars (47-11) gave 5-seed Menlo a bit of payback, beating the Oaks 8-3 behind a strong pitching performance from Menlo Park native Ben Ruder before handing 3-seed College of Idaho its first NAIA postseason loss with a 5-2 win. Azusa Pacific hit three more home runs after launching four in last night’s victory over Arizona Christian and registered 18 hits.
“It’s always really nice as a coach see your seniors go out and play their heart out. You want to see them succeed and you really want it for them personally as a coach,” said head coach Paul Svagdis. “We’re excited to get to play together one more day. That’s all we’re looking at. It’s a great group of guys. I’m just excited to have one more day with them. To get nine more innings with these guys is a blessing.”
The Cougars’ starters, Ruder and Michael Finnigan, were dominating, giving up two combined earned runs in 14.1 innings to keep Azusa Pacific’s season alive for at least another game, which will be the Opening Round Championship contest featuring the Cougars and Coyotes at 10 a.m. on Monday morning. Ruder, who was pitching against some of his little league teammates, allowed just one earned run in 7.1 innings against the Oaks, and retired 15-of-16 batters from the 3rd inning to the 8th inning.
“I just wanted to come out and pitch as hard as I could to help the team. It could have been the last game I ever pitched. I’m from Menlo, and you don’t want to go back to your hometown and have everyone remind you that you lost to your home college,” said Ruder. “We really bounced back and picked it up after the first loss of the tournament. I think that [the possibility of playing in our last game] was in the back of everyone’s heads, but we just approached it like we have to win three straight go to the World Series.”
Ruder struck out three batters and walked just one, and threw 58 of his 93 pitches for strikes, keeping the Cougars in it during a game that was a pitcher’s duel through the first four innings.
“I was proud of the way Ben went out and competed. We wanted to put a senior on the hill. We believed in him and wanted him out there with the season on the line. He certainly set the tone for us.”
And while Ruder was nearly unhittable in the first five innings he was aided by multiple defensive gems, one of which was a run-saving play from Soyring, who snared an infield hit up the middle and threw out C.J. Dailey at home to end the 2nd inning and keep the score knotted at zeroes. Soyring also helped Finnigan’s cause, chasing a grounder into right field before twirling to his left and nailing the runner at first to open the 3rd inning against the Coyotes and again in the 5th the second baseman picked up a ball that spilled into right field after it took a nasty hop on short stop Anthony Rodriguez, and threw out Tyler Andazola at the plate to end the 5th inning, keeping Idaho off the board.
Soyring, who has been a mainstay for the program since his freshman year, also helped keep his collegiate career alive from the plate, going 4-for-6 on the day with two doubles, four runs, and one RBI as the leadoff hitter.
“This might be all I got, I have to clutch up in key moments,” said Soyring. “I don’t think a single person on the team doubted that we’d win today. We’re used to going and playing four game series and that’s how we approached it. We’re all doing the same thing. We have the same goal.”
The Cougars seniors did all they could to make sure that this wouldn’t be their final day, driving in 10 runs with two homers with seven extra base hits. Johnathan Erb continued his torrid streak, blasting a solo shot over the fence in right center in the 6th inning of the Idaho win and ending the day with two RBIs. J.C. Aguayo extended Azusa Pacific’s lead to three runs against the Coyotes with a two run missile over the left field fence in the 2nd inning, while Jordan Leyland recorded three hits and three RBIs.
In the win over Menlo senior Brent Warren finally got the Cougars on the board, breaking a scoreless tie with a two-run double to right-center in the 5th. Leyland followed that up with a line drive into center to give Azusa Pacific a 4-0 edge over the Oaks (31-27). Menlo fought back with a run in the 5th on an errant throw from Rodriguez, but that run was quickly wiped away in the 6th when Soyring singled in two runs before the second baseman scored on a single from Warren to make it a 7-1 game. Trevor Lothrop added a run on his fifth home run of the year, sending a pinch-hit bomb into the left field net in the 8th inning.
Jason Plowman and Cameron Ross finished out the final two frames from the mound as the Cougars advanced to Play Idaho in the first championship game of the tournament with an 8-3 win over the Oaks.
Finnigan, who was Azusa Pacific’s only all-GSAC starting pitcher, got the nod from the staff against the Coyotes and didn’t disappoint. The junior went seven innings, giving up six hits and one run against a Coyote team that had averaged 6.5 runs in its first two tournament games. Finnigan struck out four batters, but struggled a bit with control in the 7th, pitching himself into a bases loaded jam in the 7th with three straight walks. The lefty, however, managed to do well with runners on, getting the Coyotes to plate just one run after loading the bags with no outs, and stranding six runners.
The Cougars struck early in the game as Soyring led off with a double before scoring on a Leyland sacrifice fly. In the 2nd Aguayo’s home run gave the Cougars a 3-0 lead before Erb singled in Soyring in the 3rd to make it a 4-0 contest. In the 6th Erb added another run to the Azusa Pacific lead on a solo homer, making it a 5-0 game. In the 9th Idaho chased out all-GSAC closer Alan Garcia, as the Cougars turned to Colby Gurney with no outs and the bases loaded.
Gurney got the first batter to ground out, before he struck out a Coyote and got the game’s final batter to popout to record his third save of the season and seal a rematch with Idaho for a trip to the World Series.
The Coyotes have made three previous trips to the World Series, winning the national championship in 1998, while the Cougars will be fighting for their sixth trip, still in search for the program’s first national title.