IRVINE, Calif. -- One pitch.
That’s all it took to turn what could have been a bonus chapter in a thrilling season series between Azusa Pacific and Concordia into a one-sided victory for the NAIA’s top-ranked Eagles, who used a five-run first inning to cruise to a 6-2 win over the No. 8-ranked Cougars in Saturday’s championship game of the unaffiliated conference tournament.
“You know it’s going to be a hard fought game between us and Concordia, and this type of game is great preparation for nationals,” Cougar head coach Carrie Webber said. “If we can come out and compete with them, then we can compete with anyone in the nation. It would be nice to see somebody else once we get to playoffs, but if we have to see them down the road at nationals, then there’s a certain comfort level we already have with them.”
Junior pitcher Taryn Devich was a pitch away from a one-two-three first inning when she got Concordia’s GSAC Player of the Year Amanda Fama down to a 1-2 count with two outs. However, Fama eventually drew a walk, which led to back-to-back singles that brought Fama around to score the game’s first run. After Bryana Simpson was hit by pitch to load the bases, Devich was again one pitch away from minimizing the damage when she had the Eagles down to their final strike of the inning again with an 0-2 count to Alyssa Erickson.
However, Erickson fouled off the next pitch and watched another go by outside of the strike zone before she drove Devich’s 1-2 offering for a line drive that barely cleared the fence in left-center field for a two-out grand slam and a commanding 5-0 lead.
For Concordia pitcher Katie Cotta, the NAIA’s most dominant pitcher in terms of batting average allowed (.123) and strikeouts per nine innings (17.2), a five-run lead was practically a game-clincher. Although Cotta still ended up striking out nine and collecting her 19th win of the year, Azusa Pacific was able to carve out a pair of runs on six hits. Cotta hadn’t allowed more than four hits in any game since early February, and it was the first time all year she failed to reach double-digit strikeouts when she faced at least 20 batters.
Cotta retired 10 straight to start the game, but the Cougars had runners on base in each of the final four innings.
“We’re a constant threat from the first through the seventh inning,” Webber said. “As long as we continue to fight and not give up, we’re going to keep ourselves in ballgames. That shows the character of the team, and I was really proud of them to keep fighting and not get down after giving up those five runs.”
Junior designated player Heather Koch slid head-first into first base to beat out an infield single, breaking up Cotta’s perfect start, and senior third baseman Olivia Wilcox followed with a bloop single down the left-field line. Cotta worked out of the one-out jam with back-to-back strikeouts, but junior rightfielder Brandi Andrews broke up the shutout with a two-out, two-run double in the sixth inning.
“You’ve just got to fight your way out of that hole,” Webber said. “The girls did a great job, and Cotta is a very good pitcher. They did a great job of staying with her and battling until the end.”
That cut the lead to 5-2, and Concordia pushed another run across in the bottom of the sixth to extend the lead to 6-2 heading into the seventh. It was the only run allowed by junior pitcher Mariah Worley in the 9.1 innings she threw in the entire tournament, and it came unearned with two outs in the frame. That unearned run was the only damage allowed by Worley, who scattered five hits over the final 5.1 innings.
“Concordia has seen our three pitchers for three years,” Webber said. “We just don’t have a new look to give them, so it’s challenging for our pitchers to face them. I give them a lot of credit for the job they’ve done all year against a very good Concordia team.”
Azusa Pacific opened the day by clinching its spot in the championship opposite Concordia with a 6-0 win over William Jessup, powering its way to the win on the strength of three home runs from Andrews, Jac Harkey, and Rachel Miller. Those three hits accounted for the first four runs in the 6-0 win, with Harkey and Miller going back-to-back in a four-run fourth inning.
Katrina Oviedo went three-for-three in the victory, capping a six-for-nine conference tournament performance for the true freshman second baseman, and junior centerfielder Angie Sprague was two-for-four with a pair of RBIs to help lead the Cougar offense.
Junior pitcher Rita Kim tossed five shutout frames to pick up the win, and Worley closed out the Cougars’ 20th shutout of the season with two scoreless innings. The victory was the 40th of the year for Azusa Pacific, marking just the sixth 40-win campaign in program history and the first since 2003 when the Cougars posted a 41-20 overall mark.
While Concordia claims an automatic bid into the 2012 NAIA Softball National Championship, Azusa Pacific’s top-10 ranking will likely ensure an at-large berth into the 32-team field when the final national ranking is announced along with the full list of tournament qualifiers on Tuesday, May 8.