By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The age-old cliché 'it's not over until it's over' couldn't have been more spot-on for the Tennessee Tech baseball team Sunday afternoon. Trailing by eight heading into the seventh-inning stretch, the Golden Eagles (3-0) plated nine straight, including four in the ninth, to walk-off with an 11-10 victory and series sweep over Evansville (0-3).
It took a number of players to accomplish easily the most thrilling finish at Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex this season, but none stood out more than perhaps junior first baseman Jason Hinchman. Already with two home runs coming into the contest, the slugger blasted three more during Sunday's comeback, including the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth.
"Coaches everywhere preach the whole 'it takes 27 outs to win a game,'" Tech head coach Steve Smith said. "And it's true. You guys have seen a lot more games in this ballpark than I have, but this is that kind of park. This is a park where it's a 27-out game. I don't care what the score is, until you've gotten 27 outs or they've gotten you out 27 times, it's not over."
Tech proved that truer than ever, heading into the bottom of the seventh with a seemingly, insurmountable climb ahead, trailing by eight. Freshman shortstop Brett Roberts started the rally, ripping a two-run double to left field with the bases loaded. Then, with two outs in the frame, Hinchman took his turn at the plate, already with a long ball to his credit in the contest.
He promptly uncorked one of his trademark hacks, delivering the first pitch he saw over the fence in centerfield for a three-run blast to make it a 10-7 contest. Evansville got through the eighth without any damage to its lead, but things turned very quickly in the ninth.
A trio of freshmen delivered with the most pressure, starting with rookie right fielder Elijah Brooks. In just his second collegiate at bat, the left-handed hitter laced a leadoff single to right field. Roberts drew a four-pitch walk, forcing a pitching change by the Purple Aces.
With a southpaw now on the hill, Smith went to his bench, pinch-hitting freshman catcher Luke Jones with a pair on and no outs. Having homered the day before in his collegiate debut, Jones knew the recipe for success and cooked it to perfection. He uncorked on the first pitch he saw, delivering a clutch, three-run bomb to right field to tie the game at 10.
"I think Elijah was probably the biggest one, just getting that first hit," Smith said of the roles played by the freshmen in the ninth. "Their guy was throwing pretty firm and Elijah's been sitting over there for two-and-a-half days. He finally gets his shot and he's coming off an inning where he knows he's misplaced a ball in the outfield. You don't know until you see somebody respond to something, exactly who they are. He responded very well to that. There were a whole lot of good things to see and it's a lot easier to teach off a win than a loss."
Another pitching change was made by Evansville with Hinchman due up. The veteran fell behind in the count 0-2 rather quickly, but took the next offering outside for a ball. He then found the offering he was looking for and deposited it over the center-field fence for his second career walk-off home run.
"We had the five-run inning there in the seventh, and that all of a sudden got it to a three-run game," Smith explained. "And three runs in this ballpark is a tie game. That's why I think pitching is really important here and we just survived."
On the pitching side, freshman Christian Herberholz made his first career start, tossing four innings while allowing just three hits, one earned run and two runs total. He also struck out four. Fellow first-year hurler Trey Wright covered the final three frames of the contest, holding the potent Purple Aces lineup to just one base runner on a walk. He picked up his first collegiate win with the stellar performance.
"I thought Herberholz really competed well," Smith remarked. "Trey Wright coming in and doing what he did was pretty amazing. With as well as they swung the bat, Trey was really effective for three innings."
Hinchman turned in a 4-for-5 day at the plate, scoring four times and driving in five total runs while hammering three round-trippers. He became the first player in program history to record two games with three home runs in a career while tying the single-game mark held by eight other former Golden Eagles.
"He's a good hitter and some of the balls he hit this weekend, it wouldn't matter what ballpark those were hit in. They'd be gone," Smith said. "When you swing the bat the way he did, the thing I think gets overlooked is the way he plays first base. He had a lot of chances over there on the ground and made them. He played the game pretty well over there.
"Brett Roberts, we're talking about a true freshman playing his first weekend of Division I baseball, I think made one error," Smith continued. "He played very, very well. Will Long behind the plate for two games looked good and for the majority of the game today, I wasn't calling pitches. I don't know that I called a single pitch that Trey Wright threw. So give those guys credit. They were playing the game and playing it pretty well the last three innings. And that was enough."
Tech's sweep over the Purple Aces represented the fourth time in the past five years the team swept its season-opening series.
The Golden Eagles will hit the road for seven straight away from Cookeville, kicking off the stretch with an in-state battle at Lipscomb Tuesday afternoon. First pitch against the Bisons is set for 4:00 p.m. CT in Nashville.
Photo by Thomas Corhern