AZUSA, Calif. -- Any season-ending loss is difficult to swallow, but Azusa Pacific’s two-run rally in the ninth inning made College of Idaho’s 7-6 walk-off victory in the NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round especially bitter.
Tyler Andazola, whose leadoff home run in the bottom of the fifth gave the Coyotes a 6-4 cushion, also hit the game-winning fielder’s choice grounder to first base in the bottom of the ninth for College of Idaho, which was the pre-determined home team for Monday’s championship game. The hard grounder sent Cougar first baseman Jordan Leyland diving to his right on the grass to make the stop, but his throw home was not in time to cut down the run at the plate, as Tanner Hodges slid past the catcher and across home plate for the game-winner.
In Monday’s winner-take-all title game that capped a five-day, five-team double-elimination tournament which rewarded the winner with a trip to the NAIA World Series, Azusa Pacific erased a two-run deficit in the ninth with its season on the line when Leyland knocked a two-run, one-out single down the third-base line that knotted the game at 6-6.
Junior pinch-hitter Trevor Lothrop opened up the frame with an infield single, sliding head-first underneath the tag at first base on a hard grounder up the middle. He moved to third base when Sammy Soyring’s sacrifice bunt attempt was thrown away, which also moved Soyring to second base with no outs in the ninth. Leyland’s chopper hit College of Idaho’s diving third baseman Jeffrey Harris in the shoulder and scooted into foul territory along the left-field line, allowing both Lothrop and Soyring to score and tie the game with one out in the ninth.
That tied the game heading into the bottom of the ninth, where Hodges and Harris hit back-to-back one-out singles that put runners at first and third with one out. Those were the only two hits off sophomore pitcher Jacob Cage, who retired 12 of the first 13 batters he faced until the final frame. With the winning run at third base with just one out, Azusa Pacific turned to All-GSAC closer Alan Garcia.
Garcia, who just two days earlier had thrown only five of his 14 pitches for strikes and allowed all three hitters he faced to reach base in a non-save situation against College of Idaho, delivered nothing but strikes Monday with the game on the line, running the count to 0-2 to Andazola before the game-ending grounder to first. It was the ground ball the Cougars had wanted, as they deployed a fifth infielder with the pitching change to Garcia, but Hodges raced home as soon as Andazola made contact and touched home plate as the throw arrived at the plate.
That final swing capped a wild final game of the Azusa Bracket of the NAIA Opening Round. College of Idaho struck early, scoring the game’s first run in the bottom of the first on a Hodges single, but Azusa Pacific senior leftfielder Johnathan Erb smashed a two-run home run down the right-field line in the third to give the Cougars a 2-1 edge.
The lead was short-lived, as College of Idaho converted six singles into a four-run inning in the bottom of the third to reclaim the lead at 5-2. Cougar starting pitcher J.C. Aguayo was replaced after the Coyotes regained the lead, and Azusa Pacific mixed-and-matched Cameron Ross and Jesus Del Rosario over the next two innings.
That bought enough time for the Cougars to chip away at the lead, plating one in the fourth when senior shortstop Anthony Rodriguez hit a two-out double and later scoring after a wild pitch and an errant throw back to pitcher and another in the fifth on Aguayo’s two-out single that cut the lead to 5-4. Andazola then led off the fifth with a home run to left-center off Del Rosario, pushing the margin back to two runs at 6-4.
College of Idaho starter Todd Griffiths, who threw 112 pitches in a complete-game shutout of Menlo on Friday, came back just three days later and tossed another 115 before leaving after Leyland’s two-run single in the ninth. Griffiths scattered six runs, only three of them earned, on 11 hits with a pair of strikeouts and no walks in a 115-pitch effort. Taylor Nicholson, who fired 8.2 strong innings in Thursday’s tournament-opening victory, picked up the win with two-thirds of an inning of a scoreless relief.
The middle of the Yotes’ lineup was a combined seven-for-14 Monday, including a three-for-four performance from Hodges which included him scoring the game-winner. Jarel Lewis was two-for-five and was robbed of another by Matt Kimmel, who ran down a sharp line drive into right-center for the first out of the ninth inning. Andazola drove in a game-high three runs, including the game-winning RBI on the fielder’s choice.
Azusa Pacific was led by four two-hit efforts, with three coming from Cougar seniors Leyland, Erb, and Rodriguez. Leyland and Erb each drove in two runs, while junior third baseman Brendan Casey also went two-for-four.
Although it won’t include a World Series trip, the 2012 season will undoubtedly be remembered among the program’s best campaigns after Azusa Pacific posted the second-winningest season in program history. The final record of 47-12 is one win better than 2008’s 46-12 campaign, and it’s just the fourth 40-win season ever for the Cougars, who also claimed the program’s 11th Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season championship.
The 2012 season was also the final GSAC campaign for Azusa Pacific, as the school is transitioning into NCAA Division II membership and will begin competing in the Division II Pacific West Conference next year.