AZUSA, Calif. -- A tough late-season stretch could easily have led to a somber final weekend of the regular season, but Azusa Pacific instead turned a matchup with conference-leading Grand Canyon into one of the highlights of the Cougars’ inaugural season of NCAA Division II and Pacific West Conference competition.
Azusa Pacific had lost seven of its past eight games and was swept in a four-game series at Dixie State last weekend, and the schedule didn’t appear to be letting up with the four-game series against PacWest leader Grand Canyon wrapping up the regular-season slate.
Undaunted, Rita Kim threw an 11-inning complete-game in the opener, tying the school’s single-game record for longest pitching appearance in a 2-1, 11-inning victory. In the second game, Azusa Pacific rallied from an early two-run deficit, tying the game at 2-2 in the third inning before exploding for five more runs in the fourth for the final 7-2 margin.
With the doubleheader sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 23-22 overall and 12-16 in PacWest play. The defeats cost Grand Canyon the chance to bring the PacWest lead into next week’s regular season-ending four-game clash between GCU and Dixie State with a potential conference title on the line. The ‘Lopes, who fell to 36-14 overall and 19-7 in the PacWest, went from holding a one-game advantage over Dixie State in the conference standings to a game back of the Red Storm with two games yet to play in the current Grand Canyon-Azusa Pacific series.
While Kim wasn’t at her sharpest physically Friday night, scattering 10 hits and another four walks, she was downright determined to deliver a Game 1 victory for her team. In all, she stranded 15 GCU baserunners, including escapes froms bases-loaded jams in both the seventh and ninth innings.
In the end, senior shortstop Rachel Miller drew a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 11th inning, bringing to an end the longest game Azusa Pacific has played since going 12 innings with Hope International on March 20, 2010. Kim went the distance in the pitcher’s circle, as did her Grand Canyon counterpart Stephanie Pesqueira, who surrendered five hits and three walks to the Cougars while taking the loss.
Pesqueira was perfect her first time through the Azusa Pacific lineup, retiring nine in a row before Miller led off the fourth with a single into right field. It was another three innings before the Cougars got a baserunner to second base, and again it was Miller who set the table with a leadoff double in the bottom of the seventh inning. However, a sacrifice bunt attempt was caught for the first out, and another lineout to center field put Grand Canyon just one batter away from celebrating a 1-0 opening-game win.
Pesqueira even got freshman catcher Madison Hernandez all the way down to her final strike before Hernandez ripped a single into left-center to score Miller from second base and tie the game at 1-1. In the eighth, Kim led off with another double, and this time the sacrifice worked, putting her at third base with just one out in the inning. However, Pesqueira notched a strikeout and got a spectacular diving catch from centerfielder Kayla Henry of a Sona Babayan liner into shallow center.
In the ninth inning, it was Kim’s turn to work out of trouble after Grand Canyon loaded the bases with one out. Kim got Kelsey Barak to line out to shallow right field for the second out, and Lauren Regester fouled out to catcher to strand all three baserunners. That was the second time Kim had worked her way out of a bases-loaded jam, as the ‘Lopes had put together a two-out rally in the seventh inning to load the bases before Kim escaped trouble with an inning-ending strikeout of Regester.
In the top of the 11th, a Haley Walker double put runners at second and third with the top of the GCU lineup due to hit with one out in the frame. Kim took care of a grounder back to the mound for the second out of the inning, and she got Claire Zampini to ground out to shortstop to end the inning with the score still tied at 1-1.
In the bottom of the 11th, pinch-hitter Adrianna Martinez put a sacrifice bunt down towards third base that moved pinch-runner Erica Taft ahead from second base, where she started the inning for the international tiebreaker. Taft beat the throw to third, and Martinez reached first with the fielder’s choice sacrifice. After Babayan was intentionally walked, Miller worked the count full before Pesqueira missed outside for the bases-loaded walk that forced in the game-winning run from third base.
In the second game, Grand Canyon took the first lead again with two runs in the second inning. Nicole Upshaw led off with a triple to right field, scoring on a one-out error that gave the ‘Lopes runners at second and third with one out. A fielder’s choice loaded the bases with one out, but Azusa Pacific caught a break when Henry hit a one-out fly ball into shallow centerfield. The popup dropped in front of Cougar centerfielder Angie Sprague, who fielded it on one bounce and fired it to third base to force out the runner who was tagging up near second base. Although that play scored a run, making it a 2-0 game, it allowed Azusa Pacific starting pitcher Mariah Worley to avoid further damage when the next batter flied out to center field.
The Cougars didn’t wait until the late innings to get even again, scoring the first of two third-inning runs on a Hernandez squeeze bunt that was followed by Brandi Andrews’ two-out RBI single to left that tied the game at 2-2.
Just an inning later, Azusa Pacific sent 11 batters to the plate for a five-run outburst that started on a passed ball with runners at second and third base. During the rally, Katrina Oviedo, Hernandez, and Andrews put together a run of three consecutive singles, which were followed by back-to-back walks to Kim and Koch.
Oviedo, Andrews, and senior catcher Jac Harkey each had two hits in the game, while Worley stranded GCU baserunners in all seven innings in the complete-game victory. She scattered two runs (one earned) on six hits and two walks while striking out two.
On the day, Grand Canyon stranded 23 baserunners, and the ‘Lopes were held scoreless in the first inning of both contests despite starting the day with a 53-6 scoring advantage in first-inning runs this season.
Sprague, who Friday night became Azusa Pacific’s career-leader in at-bats, singled up the middle in the record-breaking at-bat, the 690th of her career.
The Cougars host Grand Canyon for Senior Day, with senior activities set to begin at 11:45 a.m. ahead of Saturday’s scheduled noon doubleheader.