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Keeping Pace

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April 26, 2011
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. -- On a day Azusa Pacific inched closer to a possible NAIA Tournament berth, the Cougars needed every inch of the game to pull out a much-needed split with the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Cal State San Marcos. The Cougars dropped the first game, 3-2, before coming back to win the second game by the same score in a 3-hour, 10-inning marathon that ended on Olivia Wilcox’s sacrifice fly to right field to score Natalie Barnaby.

Thirty minutes before today’s first pitch, the Cougars learned they had vaulted to No. 12 in the latest in NAIA Coaches Top 25 Poll, parlaying last week’s sweep over No. 4 Concordia University into the highest ranking by a Cougar team since 2004. A year ago, the top 11-ranked teams all advanced to the NAIA Tournament, 6 of them collecting at-large bids. And now with No. 3 Cal State San Marcos on the plate, Azusa Pacific had a chance to confirm the coaches’ tip of the hat and keep their hopes alive that they too can garner an at-large bid handed out in mid-May. But first the Cougars had to go deep into the night to get that confirmation and keep those hopes.

Cal State San Marcos took the first game by scoring 3 runs in the fourth inning, tagging Cougar pitcher Taryn Devich for 3 hits in the inning, including back-to-back triples by Alex Miller and Alyssa Droenenburg to account for the game’s first run. Kimi Vallalpando’s 2-out, 2-run single to leftfield chased Devich and proved to the difference in the game after Cougar catcher Jac Harkey ripped her first home run of the season, a 2-run shot with 2outs in the bottom of the seventh. However, it was all the Cougars could muster off pitcher Brenna Sandberg, who held Azusa Pacific to just 3 hits while striking out 10 Cougars and picking up her NAIA-leading 33rd victory in 38 decisions this season.

In the second game, Devich and Sandberg again squared off, and both surrendered a first-inning run, but that was it for the next 8 innings. The Cougars got on the board with Erika Marmolejo’s bases loaded single that scored Angie Sprague, who led off the inning a single up the middle. The Cougars couldn’t touch Sandberg for a long time thereafter.

Devich, though, matched Sandberg pitch-for-pitch, escaping danger along the way, including the second inning when Cal State San Marcos put runners at second and third with 1 out. Devich, however, got the next 2 batters, first on a come-backer and then on a pop-up to keep the game tied at 1-all. In the seventh inning, CSUSM had a runner at third with 1 out, but again Devich got out of the jam, first with 1 of her 6 strikeouts and then with a ground out.

Neither team scored in the eighth inning, though CS San Marcos loaded the bases with 2 outs before Devich induced a foul out to end the frame.

In the ninth inning, Cal State San Marcos finally broke through when a tiring Devich, who threw 155 pitches in the game (and 222 on the night), issued a 2-out walk to Alicia Ingram with the bases loaded. Though Devich got the next batter to ground out to second, she told coaches she was done as she came off the field.

The Cougars offered some drama in the bottom of the ninth, apparently tying the game on Heather Koch’s sacrifice fly to right field that plated Rita Kim. However, Devich, who was pinch running at first base, failed to the see that the fly ball was caught and was racing toward second when she had to turn around and by the narrowest of margins beat a tag back at first base that would have negated Kim’s run and ended the game. Cal State San Marcos Head Coach Dave Williams vehemently argued the call and a conference between umpires did not produce a change from the original play, allowing Kim’s run to count and force a tenth inning.

In the top of the tenth, Miller gambled on a potential sacrifice bunt, trying to score all the way from the second base, but Marmolejo, involved in a bang-bang play at first, had enough presence of mind to turn and gun down Miller at the plate. Reliever Mariah Worley struck out 2 other batters to keep the game at tied and set up Wilcox’s heroics.

In the bottom of the tenth, Azusa Pacific loaded the bases with no outs, taking advantage of a fielding error and a walk to put the pressure on Sandberg, who had already thrown 260 pitches on the night. After striking out Bekah Weisser on a high fastball, Sandberg got 2 quick strikes on Wilcox, and was on the verge of turning the momentum. However, Wilcox, who leads Azusa Pacific with 32 RBIs, lifted a Sandberg offering to right field, and Barnaby raced home with the game-winning run, easily beating the throw.

With the split, Azusa Pacific has now collected victories over the NAIA’s Nos. 1- 3- and 4-ranked teams in the past 3 weeks and moves to 28-18 on the season. Cal State San Marcos is 37-7.

Azusa Pacific registered just 9 hits between the 2 games tonight. Harkey and Sprague each had 2 apiece, with Harkey’s bomb being the Cougars’ only extra-base hit in the doublehehader. Devich worked 12.2 innings in the circle, striking out 10 and walking 5. Worley worked the other 4.1 innings without giving up a run and striking out 3 while picking up the win with 1 inning of work in the second game to run her record to 11-5 on the season.

Since playing near .500 softball the first 6 weeks of the season, Azusa Pacific has gone 15-7 since mid-March, with 6 of the 7 losses coming against NAIA Top 4-ranked teams, but 4 of those 15 wins came against those same Top 4 squads.