The identity of the Azusa Pacific baseball team has taken new form this season: It’s all about small ball. Using speed at the top of the lineup, stealing bases and executing hit-and-runs and sacrifice plays, the Cougars are finding ways to score runs besides just going deep.
In years past, the team has relied heavily on the long ball to score runs and win ballgames. The 2009 club was the most prolific home run-hitting team for the Cougars in the last 10 seasons, smashing 111 homers and scoring 508 runs.
The NCAA’s rule change in 2011 to get rid of aluminum bats resulted in a significant drop in the amount of home runs being hit in college baseball. A year after the rule change, the 2012 squad hit 82 home runs and scored 455 times.
Through the Cougars’ first 24 games this season, they hit 25 home runs and scored 127 runs, putting them on pace for 50 homers and 264 scores on the season. They have also stolen 32 bases.
According to head coach Paul Svagdis, the offensive approach has not necessarily changed, but a strong pitching staff has made scoring many runs less of a priority.
“We’re different athletes this year, [but] the approach hasn’t really changed,” Svagdis said. “You get in those moments when you feel confident in what you’re doing pitching-wise, which we really are with our staff, that in the middle of the game or with three or four innings left, we’re just trying to push a run over to extend the lead.”
One of those athletes to whom he refers is the Cougars’ leadoff hitter, junior center fielder Joseph Daris. His speed at the top of the lineup has been one of the most important parts of the Cougars’ offensive approach.
“Joe Daris is fast. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to do the best we can to use our players’ strengths,” Svagdis said.
Daris has not been caught stealing this season and stands at a perfect 10-for-10. He also leads the team in runs with 21.
Svagdis also praised sophomore third baseman Daniel Martin, sophomore left fielder Mitch Dergazarian and sophomore shortstop Andrew Carillo all as players who are able to run the bases and steal them well.
Highlighting each player’s strengths also allows them to develop specific roles throughout the order.
“Our whole team philosophy is we hit as a unit, and that’s our whole goal. One through nine, everyone has a role, whether it be an execution guy to bunt guys over or put the ball hard in play,” Daris said. “Then we have our guys who are designed to drive the ball in the gaps. We recognize we aren’t going to be putting out a lot of jacks this year, so we’re just trying to say, ‘Hey, this is what you’re good at, this is your role and everybody do it to form a unit.’”
One of the strongest members of that unit is senior right fielder Matt Kimmel, who bats third in the lineup. Kimmel is second on the team in average at .390, first in hits with 41 and second in RBIs with 23. He is also second on the team in home runs with four.
Kimmel sees the small-ball offense as a way to put pressure on the defense and allow the Cougars to play a different style of baseball than in previous seasons.
“We’re built for [small ball],” Kimmel said. “We have a lot of guys that are fast and a lot of guys that hit line drives, so that helps a lot, and when everybody stays on their plan and does their job, we can still score a lot of runs.”
By playing this brand of baseball, the Cougars are setting themselves up for a long road trip where home runs cannot be expected.
“Some of the things we’ve been doing, we’re going to have to play that way on the road. We don’t have the luxury of playing in our ballpark every day,” Svagdis said.