By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Miss. – It was a whirlwind day for the No. 20 Tennessee Tech baseball team, as the Golden Eagles (50-10) rebounded after dropping a nail-biter, 9-8, to No. 4 Ole Miss (48-15) to defeat Missouri State (40-17), 2-1, to advance to the NCAA Oxford Regional championship game on Monday.
Tech will get a rematch against the Regional's No. 1 seed Rebels Monday at noon CT at Swayze Stadium. Fans can follow the action live on ESPN3 and on 106.1 The Eagle.
The first contest of the day for the Golden Eagles was an instant classic. Playing in front of the largest crowd ever for a Tennessee Tech baseball game (10,891), the purple and gold showed some early jitters while the Rebels took a 2-0 lead.
Tech rebounded both on the mound and at the plate, with starting pitcher Marcus Evey tossing up three straight scoreless frames after the first. With the bats, it was the Golden Eagle calling card – the long ball – that helped the Cookeville squad answer the Ole Miss start.
Junior Nick Osborne smashed a leadoff home run to left center field in the third, and was followed immediately by senior catcher Brennon Kaleiawahea for back-to-back jacks. The Tech backstop blasted the first pitch offered after the Osborne long ball to right field, tying the game in the process.
In the fifth, the Rebels took back control with a pair of runs. Tech was quick to answer this time, using a two-out rally in the bottom half to once again knot things up. Outfielders Collin Harris and Alex Junior each eked out singles, allowing senior Trevor Putzig to come to the plate and deliver. The third baseman single through the left side for an RBI to cut the deficit in half. Junior Kevin Strohschein followed with an RBI base hit down the left field line to make it a 4-4 ball game.
With two outs in the sixth, Ole Miss used the ear-splitting crowd to its advantage, stealing third base without a throw from the Tech defense. A sacrifice fly from the next batter provided the go-ahead score.
Osborne lifted the Golden Eagles again, hammering his second solo blast of the day to right field to even things at 5-5. It marked the slugger's third multi-home run effort of the campaign and represented his 12th of the year.
Ole Miss recaptured the lead in the eighth, taking advantage of a two-out wild pitch on a swing and miss for strike three and extending the inning. The next batter laced an RBI double down the left field line to provide the lead. The Rebels scored three more runs in the ninth to seemingly take charge and clinch victory, scoring one on an RBI single and two more on a wild pitch.
Tech showed the same resilience it had displayed all season, however, putting the nearly 11,000 fans at Swayze Field on the edges of their seats in the bottom of the ninth.
After a leadoff strikeout, the Tech bats went to work. Senior Chase Chambers drew a five-pitch walk to kick things off. Pinch hitter Anthony Carrera followed suit with a walk of his own. Facing a 1-2 count, senior shortstop David Garza was plunked by a pitch to load the bases and keep the momentum growing in favor of the Golden Eagles.
A pitching change didn't slow down the Tech rally for long, despite a pop up for the second out. Kaleiwahea drew a bases-loaded walk for an RBI to cut the deficit to three. Harris then made things very interesting, lacing a single to center field that drove in two runs and trimmed the Ole Miss lead to just a single run.
One more pitching change for the Rebels led to a six-pitch strikeout to end the game and force the Golden Eagles into an elimination contest against Missouri State at 9:45 p.m. Sunday evening.
Just when the Tech squad needed him most, however, junior hurler Alex Hursey turned in arguably the best outing of his Golden Eagle career. The southpaw came on for the purple and gold and shoved, tossing a complete game while holding the Bears to a single run on three hits and one walk.
He struck out five batters while earning his eighth victory of the year. Hursey's lone run surrendered came on a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, after the Tech offense had already built a 2-1 lead. The Golden Eagles plated single runs in the second and third, with RBI from Kaleiwahea and Chambers, to provide just enough fire power for Hursey to perform his magic.
With the win over Missouri State, Tech won multiple games in an NCAA Regional for the first time in program history. It also provide the Golden Eagles with their 50th victory of the year, the first Ohio Valley Conference school to hit the 50-win mark and the first team in the nation to reach the 50-win plateau in 2018.
The Golden Eagles will now square off with Ole Miss on Monday at noon CT. If Tech wins the contest at noon, the two teams will face off again at 6 p.m. CT on Monday for a winner-take-all championship game and berth to the NCAA Super Regionals.
Photo by Tony Marable