AZUSA, Calif. -- It took 10 years for the Cougar Softball Complex to host its first playoff game, but all the thrills of a decade seemed to be wrapped into one game, making tonight’s 5-4 extra-inning victory of the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific over No. 10 Concordia University worth the long wait.
Nicole Llorens’s 2-out grounder in the bottom of the eighth inning slipped under the glove and between the legs of Concordia’s All-GSAC shortstop Amanda Fama, allowing Natalie Barnaby to race home from second base with the improbable game-winning run and capping Azusa Pacific’s comeback victory.
“This win is huge,” said fourth-year Cougar Coach Carrie Webber. “It allows us to play controlled and relaxed games tomorrow, 2 if needed. The way the rankings are looking, it appears whoever wins this series is going to get to go to nationals, and the loser is going to be left behind and be ripped off.”
The win gives the Cougars a 1-0 lead in the best 2-of-3 series which resumes Thursday (May 4) with the second game at 5 p.m., and a third game, if necessary, will follow at 7 p.m. all at the Cougar Softball Complex. The eventual series winner will advance to take on the California Baptist/Vanguard winner in another best 2-of-3 series Thursday and Friday. Cal Baptist won its series opening game, 9-1 over the Lions.
The Cougars twice rallied from 1-run deficits tonight, the second coming when they took advantage of another Fama error, 1 of 3 she had on the night. With Azusa Pacific down 4-3 with 1 out in the bottom of the fifth, Fama overthrew her third baseman on a short throw attempting to get Olivia Wilcox on a force out at third. The errant toss gave Wilcox time to get up and scramble home to knot the game at 4-4.
Concordia had a golden opportunity to re-take the lead in the top of the sixth, but a heady play by Cougar catcher Jac Harkey stopped the Eagles dead in their tracks. With runners at first and third and no outs, Concordia opted for a suicide-squeeze play but Samantha Perez’s bunt was speared by Harkey, who dove back toward the plate to tag out Katie Carson and then jumped to her feet to throw out Briena Eckle at third base.
“The ball bounced up pretty high and the corners weren’t there,” reflected Harkey, “so I reached out for the ball, tagged her and saw the girl running for third and got her. It was a definite momentum changer. They were crushed.”
Instead of owning a 5-4 lead with runners at first and third and no outs, Concordia found itself with 2 outs, a runner at first, and still tied with Azusa Pacific, 4-4.
“The ball bounced perfect for us,” said Webber. “You could not have asked for a better squeeze for us, as a defensive team in that moment. Jac made great play and then had the awareness to come up and throw to third. That was a momentum snap and tore at them.”
Cougar pitcher Taryn Devich was never in trouble the rest of the night, retiring 7 of the final 8 batters she face.
For the most part, Devich was overwhelming. She retired the first 6 batters she faced and struck out the side in the fourth inning. The defense behind her failed in the third, throwing away a bunt attempt. Two batters later, the Eagles finally had their first hit, a 2-out Jennifer Simons triple to the wall in right-center that scored a pair of unearned runs and tied the game at 2-2. Moments later, Simons scored on Jenna Jorgenson’s bloop single behind Devich to give the Eagles a 3-2 lead.
Devich finished with 7 strikeouts and yielded just 1 earned run in 8 innings of work. She picks up her second win in 2 weeks over Concordia and runs her record to 13-7 on the season.
“Taryn is a machine,” added Harkey, who caught Devich for all 8 innings tonight. “She has been through so much physically this season, going to the training room as many as 3 times a day to get better. Then she comes out here and throws as hard as she can for as long as she can.”
In the fourth inning Azusa Pacific tied the game at 3-all on Llorens’ 2-out double to the gap in right center that scored Angie Sprague from first base.
Azusa Pacific took a quick 2-0 lead when Wilcox launched her team-leading eighth home run of the season in the first inning, a bomb over the leftfield wall that scored Bekah Weisser as well.
Seven of the 9 Cougar starters accounted for the team’s 8 hits on the night. Wilcox was 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs scored.
Azusa Pacific is now 5-0 in extra inning games, all of which have come in the past 3 weeks.
“We got a lot of practice last year,” said Harkey. “It seemed like half our games were extra innings last year, so it’s not that big of a deal this year. We know how to act under pressure.”
With the win Azusa Pacific improves to 31-18 overall while Concordia falls to 46-12.