AZUSA, Calif. – This was the ultimate “playing out the string” moment. The conference champion was already crowned, and not only was the playoff field determined, the seedings and first-round pairings were set.
Nothing really mattered in the Azusa Pacific-Westmont game. Or did it?
“If the schedule says there’s a game, our guys are playing it to the final out,” said Paul Svagdis, head coach of the 2-time reigning Golden State Athletic Conference champion Azusa Pacific Cougars. “It would be the antithesis of everything we teach if we didn’t take tonight’s game serious and play to win.”
And the Cougars took this one to the final out, scoring 2 runs in the bottom of the ninth to come-from-behind and beat Westmont, 6-5, in both team’s 2008 regular-season finale.
Senior Galen Komo poked a 2-out single through the right side and just beyond the outstretched arms of a diving Warrior second baseman Mark Boujikian, allowing Cougar pinch-runner Shaun Lane to trot home with the game-winning run and end the 3-hour-plus contest.
Azusa Pacific scored 4 runs in the first 4 innings, but Warrior reliever Max Gutierrez silenced the Cougars bats with 3 innings of no-hit relief while striking out 3. In the meantime, Boujikian came off the bench to blast a 2-run pinch hit home run in the top of the sixth to give Westmont a 5-4 lead that appeared would stand under Gutierrez’ dazzling mound effort.
None of the first 12 Cougars Gutierrez faced touched him for a safety, but the 13th Cougar proved to not only be unlucky for Gutierrez but eventually fatal. Kirk Nieuwenhuis ripped a 1-out laser over the leftfield fence for his tenth home run of the season and tie the game at 5-5. From there Gutierrez seemed to unravel, first hitting Stephen Kohatsu with a pitch and then yielding a hard-hit single to Stephen Gillette. Though Gillette was cut down trying to stretch it into a double, Gutierrez couldn’t regain his former form. He walked Chris Feicht and Derrick Keeton to load the bases, setting the stage for Komo, who fought off a couple of pitches with foul balls before going with a Gutierrez offering and pushing it into shallow right field.
“It’s hard to not think of the situation at hand, but our guys really try to focus on just having quality at-bats each time,” added Svagdis. “Galen did a great job with some good cuts, knowing Gutierrez had to throw fast balls for strikes since there was nowhere to put him on base.”
Azusa Pacific, which earlier this year combined for 33 runs in 2 victories over Westmont, could not run away from the Warriors tonight. Westmont pushed around Cougar starter Christian Gagne for 3 runs in the first 3 innings, including 2 in the opening frame, to go along with 9 hits.
However, the Cougars answered each Warrior score and took a 4-3 lead on Grant Beyer’s solo home run, his third of the season, with 1 out in the fourth inning.
Boujikian then touched Cougar reliever Andrew Shive with the 2-run bomb that put Westmont back up 5-4.
The Cougars managed just 8 hits. Gillette finished the game 3-for-4 with an RBI, while Nieuwenhuis went 2-for-5 with an RBI. Ben Jones picked up the win to run his record to 4-1 with 2 innings of 1-hit relief, striking out 4 Warriors.
With the win, the Cougars’ 15th straight over Westmont, Azusa Pacific improves to 41-8 and finishes the GSAC campaign with a league-best 29-7 record. Westmont’s season comes to an end with a 9-33 record which includes a 5-30 clip in GSAC play.
Azusa Pacific now heads into the postseason with an 8-game winning streak. The Cougars host the 6-team NAIA Region II Playoffs next week, May 6-9. Azusa Pacific will take on Concordia in 1 of 3 first-round games. Starting times for all 3 first-round games will be announced later this week.