By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech baseball team kicked off both the 2020 campaign and Steve Smith era in style Saturday, claiming a pair of victories over Evansville in doubleheader action at Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex.
The Golden Eagles (2-0) lived up to their reputation as one of the nation's top power-hitting programs, using five home runs and four doubles to defeat the Purple Aces 5-3 in game one and 7-6 in game two. The Tech bats totaled 22 hits in the two contests, with 10 different Golden Eagles recording at least one base knock on the day.
"Our guys swung the bat well, we played pretty decent defense and we dodged a lot of bullets pitching-wise," Smith said. "I thought [Alex] Hursey did a nice job in the first game after he got through the first inning and settle down. There are a lot of things we need to clean up on the mound. I would say we were more lucky than good on the mound."
In game one, Evansville got on the board first with a solo home run in the third. Junior Jason Hinchman, the nation's reigning leader in home runs per game, answered for the purple and gold in the fourth, crushing the first pitch of the frame to left center field.
The purple aces scored single runs in the sixth and seventh to take a 3-1 lead, but the Golden Eagles had other plans for the remainder of the tilt. Hinchman provided some déjà vu, leading off the eighth inning with another solo blast for his second round-tripper of the game.
With two outs in the frame and a pair of runners on, junior college transfer Paul Steffensen provided the game-changing moment, crushing a 1-1 offering to left field for a three-run bomb and his first long ball as a Golden Eagle. The dinger gave Tech a 5-3 lead.
Alex Hursey struck out six batters with just one run allowed in three and third inning in the first start of the year. Mark Leonard took home the win after completing one and two-thirds frames in relief, surrendering just a single hit. Tyler Sylvester closed out the final two outs to earn his first save of the year and Coach Smith's first win as the head coach of the Tech program.
Game two saw the Purple Aces again dent the scoreboard first, plating single markers in the first and second innings. In the fourth, Tech took control, with a two-run single through the right side from freshman catcher Luke Jones, his first hit and RBI as a Golden Eagle. Hunter Higdon followed with a sacrifice fly to left field to give the purple and gold a 3-2 lead.
Evansville retook the lead in the fifth with a pair of runs, but it was a short-lived advantage. In the bottom half, senior third baseman Gavin Johns laced an RBI double to right center field to tie the contest at 4-4.
Freshman shortstop Brett Roberts delivered the big hit in the second game, smashing a two-run blast for his first career dinger to center field in the bottom of the sixth to put the Golden Eagles on top, 6-4. Evansville cut the lead in half in the eighth, but Jones powered his first round-tripper of his career to left field to take the run back.
The Purple Aces made things interesting in the ninth, scoring once with the bases loaded, but junior Brock Myers snagged his third strikeout of the inning to claim his first career save and secure Tech's 2-0 start to the 2020 campaign. Grant Phillips earned the win on the hill after tossing three innings with a pair of runs allowed.
"The thing that was impressive and I felt really good about was just the way we swung the bat," Smith said. "We had a lot of good at bats in both games and I felt that if we could just keep the thing close, even in the first game, we would be alright. That's one of the reasons Leonard went in during the first game. We were down two at the time, but to me, it felt like the game was tied. And I wanted him to know that."
Named the 15th head coach in Tech history back in December, Smith became just the fourth in program history to win in his debut since 1948. And it registered as a special one for him and his family.
"It's cool," Smith expressed. "It really is. My oldest son, Ryan, who drove in here from Chapel Hill [N.C.] for this weekend, was two-and-a-half when I got my first win at Baylor. I can still see the picture of me holding him and him holding that little number one up, and he didn't even really know what it was about [laughing]. So it was pretty cool to have him here for that. My family has been tremendous. This has been a team effort for 20-plus years and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without them."
The Golden Eagles will look to complete the three-game series sweep Sunday afternoon, hosting the Purple Aces in the weekend finale at 1:00 p.m. at Quillen Field. Freshman Christian Herberholz is expected to make his collegiate debut as the team's slotted starter on the hill.
Photo by Thomas Corhern