By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Timely hitting and great relief pitching were the tools of the trade for the Tennessee Tech baseball team Saturday, as the Golden Eagles completed both a doubleheader and series sweep of Western Illinois with a pair of victories.
Tech (3-0) took the first of two games at Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex, 8-3, and followed it up with a 7-4 victory to snag its second 3-0 start to season over the Leathernecks in the past four years. The Golden Eagles also swept a three-game set against WIU to kick off the 2016 season.
Game one started with a special moment, as junior hurler Nic Dye made his season debut on the bump less than year after suffering a broken arm while pitching at Tennessee last season. The southpaw struck out the first two batters he faced and finished the day with a total of five punch outs in three innings of work.
Western Illinois took the first lead of the day, scoring a single run in each of the first three frames. For Tech, it was a slow boil for the offense, but it got into a groove starting in the fourth.
The inning began with a walk to senior All-American Kevin Strohschein. Two batters and one out later, Jason Hinchman laced a single down the third base line, making it to second on a fielding error by the left fielder. On the very next pitch, freshman outfielder JD Funk blooped a single to center field, driving in both runners to cut the deficit to a solo run.
Back-to-back walks drawn by John Elford and Zell Walker loaded the bases with one out, brining junior Cody Littlejohn to the dish. The veteran proudly wore the fourth pitch he saw on his leg, getting plunked for a much-deserved RBI to tie the game. Following a Western Illinois pitching change, shortstop Jay Meuse smashed a fly ball to center field for a sacrifice fly, giving Tech a 4-3 advantage.
The Golden Eagles added a single run in the fifth on an RBI single from Anthony Carrera and another in the sixth thanks to the first Division I home run off the bat of Meuse, a solo bomb to left field.
For good measure, Tech slapped two more runs on the scoreboard in the eighth, both from Littlejohn's lumber. The second baseman hammered a double to center field, driving in a pair for the 8-3 final score.
Senior Alex Hursey, who relieved Dye to start the fourth inning, took home the victory after tossing a scoreless frame. It marked the ninth win of his short career in the purple and gold. Junior college transfer Mark Leonard was brilliant in four innings out of the bullpen, scattering a pair of walks while striking out seven batters and not allowing a hit. Freshman Thomas Saliba wrapped up the contest with a quick and efficient ninth, holding the Leathernecks without a baserunner and fanning two.
In the series finale, the Golden Eagles put their rally caps on a couple of times to pull of the three-run victory, as Western Illinois dented home plate first. The visitors struck for a pair of runs in the top of the second, using a walk and the only two hits redshirt freshman Connor Adams would surrender in three and two thirds inning to take the lead. Adams struck out five in his collegiate debut.
In the third, Tech took the reins with redshirt freshman Nathan McMeans setting the standard for the frame. The second baseman ripped a double down the left field line to lead things off, eventually advancing to third on a wild pitch with one out. UCLA transfer Gavin Johns and Strohschein each followed with walks, loading the bases.
Western Illinois managed a second out before Carrera drove in a run on a play that was pure hustle. The veteran slugger smashed a liner right at the Leatherneck pitcher, who knocked the ball down while attempting to snare it for the inning-saving out. He quickly rifled the ball to first, but Carrera was rewarded for busting it down the first base line with an infield single and RBI, just beating the throw.
Freshman John Dyer, a Mt. Juliet native, drew a walk to keep the inning alive and the Golden Eagles trending in the right direction on the scoreboard. His RBI tied the game. Littlejohn followed suit, giving the Golden Eagles the lead with his own bases-loaded free pass.
The Leathernecks answered with a pair of notations in the fourth, but they couldn't keep the tenacious offense of the Golden Eagles at bay.
In the fourth, Tech struck again as McMeans blasted his second straight leadoff double of the game, this time to left center. Johns followed two batters and an out later, pushing his own double into left center field for a game-tying RBI. Strohschein earned a base the hard way, getting plunked on a full count. He and Johns both advanced a base on a passed ball, setting up Hinchman for some heroics.
The sophomore slugger came through, lifting a single to left field that drove in both runners for a 6-4 Tech advantage. The Golden Eagles put one more on the board in the eighth for good measure, thanks to a sacrifice fly from Elford.
On the hill, the Golden Eagles used five pitchers to bridge the gap from Adams to the ninth inning. A collection of Seth Noel, Tony Curry, Saliba, Zach Wilcox and Daniel Holley combined for four and one third innings with just two walks and two hits allowed. They also combined for five punch outs.
The ninth, however, belonged to newly minted closer Tyler Sylvester. The sophomore made easy work of his time on the bump, fanning the side with a single walk. It earned him his first save of the season. Saliba claimed his first collegiate victory after completing two and third innings of relief without a baserunner allowed.
The Golden Eagles will get their first taste of the road of 2019 next week, making a midweek trip east for a battle with No. 14 Clemson on Wednesday, Feb. 20. First pitch is scheduled for a 3:00 p.m. CT start. Tech will remain on the road for a weekend series at South Alabama and Tuesday match-up the following week with in-state rival Middle Tennessee. Tech will return to Quillen Field on Mar. 1 to kick off a three-game set with Youngstown State.
Photo by Tony Marable