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There's Hope at Home

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March 26, 2011
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. -- Three Cougar pitchers combined to allow 1 earned run over 14 innings of work, and Azusa Pacific made the most of its opportunities to sweep a Golden State Athletic Conference doubleheader from Hope International University, 3-2 and 6-0, Saturday afternoon at the Cougar Softball Complex.

The 2 wins push Azusa Pacific’s home field winning streak to 8 straight and confirm the Cougars continued comeback from a less-than-inspiring performance in 6 games at the Tucson Invitational 2 weeks ago.

“Sometimes a team needs a wake-up call, and that’s what Tucson was for us,” said fourth-year Cougar Head Coach Carrie Webber. “We had a change of mindset that has helped. Our pitching has really stepped up and understood how vital their role is, and we’ve been having better quality at-bats the plate since returning from Tucson.”

Sophomore pitcher Rita Kim capped the day’s effort with a 3-hit, complete-game shutout in the nightcap. She retired 17 of the first 18 batters she faced, including 15 in a row at one point. However, she was locked in a duel with HIU’s Liz Gonzalez, who continually escaped trouble through the first 4 innings until the Cougars touched her for a pair of unearned runs in the fifth inning.

Senior Bekah Weisser made Royal second baseman Lauren Ackerson pay for her 2-out fielding error when she ripped Gonzalez’s first offering for a double into the gap to score Brandi Andrews and Nicole Llorens to put the Cougars up 2-0.

In the sixth, Gonzalez lost her control and issued back-to-back 1-out walks. Despite Gonzalez throwing 6 straight balls, an aggressive Andrews could not let an inside fastball slip by, and instead turned on it and launched her third home run of the season, a 3-run shot that gave Kim and the Cougars a comfortable 5-run margin.

Ackerson, who despite her troubles in the field was having a day at the plate, finally ended Kim’s streak of consecutive outs with a 2-out sharp single to leftfield in the sixth inning. When Adi Lopez lifted a single down the leftfield line just out of the reach of a diving Rachel Miller, Ackerson took advantage of a face-prone Miller and circled the bases, only to be beaten at home by Miller’s perfect 1-hop throw which allowed catcher Jac Harkey to easily apply the inning-ending tag on Ackerson.

The Cougar defense again came to Kim’s rescue in the top of the seventh. After she hit a batter and walked another with 1 out, Llorens turned a nifty double-play, tagging the runner and throwing out the batter to end the game and give Kim her second shutout victory in her past 3 outings. She has surrendered just 4 earned runs in her past 30 innings of work.

“We’re starting to see the Rita that we saw last year and that we know she can be this year,” said Webber. “She is going after batters a lot better now, so having her go 7 innings is huge for her confidence and for ours as a team.”

Andrews, who came into the game batting .250 on the season, went 2-for-2, adding a third-inning lead-off triple to her day’s work. The Cougars, however, were not able to cash in on her first 3-bagger of the season. Of Andrews’ 7 hits this season, 5 have been for extra bases, including the aforementioned trio of home runs.

“My approach today was to be aggressive and have fun,” said Andrews, who hadn’t started a game since mid-February. “I thought I had to hit now because it could be a couple more games before I’m back in the line-up.”

In the first game, Azusa Pacific got all the runs they needed in the third inning. After the Royals took a 1-0 lead with an unearned run, the Cougars answered with 3 runs of their own. Harkey’s 2-out triple, in which she over-ran her coach’s sign to stop at a second and was still able to slide around the tag a third base, scored Llorens, who led off the inning with a double, and Miller. Erika Marmolejo punched a single to send Harkey home and give the Cougars a 3-1 lead.

“We never found ourselves in a situation in which we were out of control today,” said Webber. “We just kept pounding the ball, and I knew that eventually they were going to start to fall.”

In the top of the fifth, Ackerson ripped a 2-out double to dead centerfield to score another run for the Royals and cut the Cougar advantage to 3-2. However, sophomore pitcher Mariah Worley came out of the bullpen to fire 2-innings of 1-hit relief, striking out 3 of the 8 batters she faced to pick up her first save of the season and preserve the win for Taryn Devich, who gave up 1 earned run and struck out 5 in 5 innings of work.

For the twin-bill, Harkey went 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs, a run and 3 walks. Llorens was 2-for-4 with 2 runs and 2 stolen bases.

Azusa Pacific hasn’t lost at home since March 3; a fact the Cougars will lean on when they host Vanguard University in a GSAC doubleheader on Tuesday (March 29), beginning at 4 p.m. at the Cougar Softball complex.