REEDLEY, Calif. -- The qualities of a good baseball team are often recited in a familiar refrain – pitching, hitting and defense.
While neither team executed consistently, Fresno Pacific came up with some timely hitting and a pair of outstanding defensive plays as it swept Azusa Pacific, 8-6 and 7-6, on Thursday at Tiger Stadium in Reedley, Calif.
And while Fresno Pacific has been below .500 this season in part because of defensive struggles but on 2 plays those worries diminished. Trailing 8-6, with the bases loaded and 2 men out in the ninth inning, Azusa Pacific’s Stephen Gillette hit a deep smash to left centerfield. While the runners were off at the crack of the bat so to was centerfielder Andy Locke who raced toward the fence, made a headlong dive and made an improbable catch to seal the win for the Sunbirds.
It was a wild finish to a game that saw momentum flirt with both sides before settling on the Fresno Pacific dugout. The catch by Locke ended a 5-run outburst by the Cougars that had brought them within 2 runs. Ironically, they were aided by a porous Sunbird defense that committed 4 errors in the frame.
While the rally was a late indication that the Cougar bats were coming to life, they had been silent for the majority of the ballgame. Sunbird starter Jerrod Wood had a strong start pitching into the ninth inning before falling victim to bad defense and a high pitch count. Through his first 8 innings, Wood (1-1) only gave up 1 run - an RBI double to Coba Canales - in the third inning.
Brandon Sisk countered with a quality start of his own as he allowed only 2 runs in 6 innings of work. He gave way to Garrett Lebsock who tossed a scoreless seventh inning before running into trouble in the eighth. Leading 2-1, Fresno Pacific broke the game open with a 6-run eighth inning highlighted by a 2-run double by Locke and a 2-run single by Adam Alva.
Trailing by 7, the Cougars showed their resolve and battled back. Dwight Nixon led off the ninth by reaching on an error by Alva. Gillette then hit a ball that was booted by the shortstop, Kyle Newton. Johnny Soberal flied out to right field that moved both runners up but a poor throw by Eric Lingren allowed Nixon to score and Gillette to move to third. Canales then drew a walk which ended the night for Wood.
Paul Valenzuela came in from the bullpen and promptly issued a walk to Kirk Nieuwenhuis to load the bases. Stephen Vogt, who leads the team with 34 runs batted in, followed with an RBI hit that plated Gillette to make it an 8-3. The hit parade continued as Scott Hodsdon lined a ball into the outfield to score 2 runs to bring the Cougars within 3. The Sunbirds went to the bullpen again bringing in Daniel Brodie who committed an error that allowed Vogt to score. Nixon then flied out to left setting up Gillette’s rocket to center that was caught to end the game.
After suffering that tough loss in the opener, Azusa Pacific hoped to bounce back in the second game but instead suffered another frustrating defeat. Trailing 7-4 moving into the ninth, the Cougars again pieced together a furious rally. Nieuwenhuis and Vogt led off the ninth with back-to-back walks and Nelson Caraballo was replaced again by Brodie, the Houdini protégé who escaped the opener unscathed.
However, Hodsdon greeted him with a single to load the bases with nobody out. Nick Beghtol then worked a walk to force in a run to make it a 7-5 game. Soberal then lifted a sacrifice fly to right field that plated Vogt. With men at first and third Nixon was asked to put down a squeeze but missed the ball and Hodsdon was hung out to dry in a rundown between the plate and third base. Alertly, Beghtol scampered around to third during the rundown. Nixon then belted a sinking liner toward right that Lingren charged and caught shin high to end the game.
The Cougars (17-13, 10-8) were led by Hodsdon who went 4-for-8 with 4 RBIs in the twinbill. He was one of the few offensive stars as Azusa Pacific had only 10 hits off Sunbird pitching while hurting their cause with 6 miscues in the field.
Azusa Pacific will next be in action on Saturday when it hosts the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Biola in a doubleheader at 11 a.m.