By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – For all the challenges and obstacles presented throughout the past two seasons, it seemed only fitting that the 2021 campaign would provide a Hollywood-type ending for the Tennessee Tech baseball team.
The Golden Eagles (22-25, 15-15) earned just that kind of finish to the first full year with head coach Steve Smith at the helm of the program. The Tech skipper pushed all the right buttons throughout the weekend and team responded time and again.
It all culminated in one of the most entertaining and thrilling finishes to a contest at Quillen Field and Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex in recent memory, with the purple and gold scoring five times in the bottom of the ninth inning to earn a 13-12, walk-off victory and 3-0 Ohio Valley Conference series sweep of SIUE (23-27, 13-17).
Tech took care of business in the first contest, winning the series with a 12-7 decision over the Cougars. The team then showed the type of resilience that has slowly come to define the Golden Eagles under the direction of Smith. With numerous storylines through the day, particularly in the second game alone, it was the comeback that shined brightest.
For the third time in the series, the Cougars scored in the first inning, plating a pair for the early 2-0 lead. Also for the third time in as many games, Tech had a bigger and better response.
Second baseman Brett Roberts kick-started the scoring effort for his squad with an RBI single through the right side. Next up, first baseman Golston Gillespie continued his strong weekend with a two-run blast to center field. His 12th home run of the year made it a 3-2 Tech lead.
That was quickly increased to 7-2 in favor of the home squad, with Gillespie back at it again in the third. The redshirt sophomore crushed his second round-tripper of the contest (and 13th of the year) to right-center field, a three-run shot that provided some historical implications. It marked the slugger's fourth contest with multiple long balls this year, a new single-season record for the Tech ball club.
Two batters later, senior Cody Littlejohn added to one of the best weeks at the dish in his career, smashing a solo jack to right-center field for his 12th dinger on the season. Little did the home crowd know, he was just getting started.
After SIUE collected its second dinger of the game in the fifth, Littlejohn went right back to work in the bottom half. The left fielder uncorked a swing for an oppo taco, a solo shot to left-center field for his second trip around the bases in the contest. With his 13th tank on the year, Littlejohn and Gillespie became the first Tech teammates to each hit multiple home runs in a single game since Trevor Putzig and Kevin Strohschein each hammered three in a 30-17 win over Illinois State on Feb. 24, 2018. Tech hit a program-record 11 bombs in that contest.
The Cougars turned a corner, flipping the script on the purple and gold with a solo run in the sixth, three in the seventh, four more in the eighth and one for good measure in the ninth. SIUE smacked four long balls of its own over the span, taking a 12-8 lead that seemed good enough to avoid the sweep.
The lesson of the night, provided by the Tech bats, was clearly to never count out a Steve Smith-coached team. Right out of the gate in the ninth, the grind was on. Gillespie worked a four-pitch walk to lead things off and junior Jason Hinchman matched the effort to put a pair on with nobody out.
Littlejohn took his turn at the dish and carved his names deeper into the Golden Eagle record books. Having already become the 22nd player in school history to hit at least 20 home runs in their career, the Decatur, Ala. native joined an even more elite list.
On a 1-1 offering, the veteran crushed a three-run smash to left-center field, easily clearing the fence for his third round-tripper of the game and cutting the deficit to just a single run with no outs. Littlejohn's 14th jack of the season made him just the 10th Golden Eagle ever to hit three home runs in a single game, tying the program mark. Having tripled earlier in the contest as well, he also tied the school's single-game record for total bases, compiling 15 to match Putzig's effort in the Illinois State game in 2018.
With the inning far from over, third baseman Gabe Lacy kept the wheels in motion by squeezing a double down the left-field line. After a strikeout finally provided SIUE with some momentum, Smith went to the bench, pinch-hitting for senior hurler Alex Hursey, who had gathered the final two outs of the top half of the ninth.
Sophomore John Dyer took over for the Tech southpaw, producing a well-earned walk on six pitches. Center fielder Tynan Shahidi tied the game, grounding out softly to first base to avoid a double play and put his team just a base hit from fate.
Four-for-four coming into the final at-bat of the night, shortstop Ed Johnson fell behind 0-2 before a wild pitch allowed the winning run to reach third and provide a blip of life in Tech's chances at finishing the comeback. The sophomore delivered, making it a perfect 5-for-5 night by ripping a seeing-eye single to third base for the game-winning RBI and walk-off win.
Hursey earned his second win of the year behind the madness, capping a career highlighted by one of the most clutch pitching performances in program history. Never forgotten, the senior turned in a complete-game, 2-1 victory in Tech's elimination win over Missouri State on its way to the NCAA Oxford Regional title in 2018.
In the season's final contest, both Littlejohn and Gillespie drove in five runs each. Johnson and Roberts each scored a pair of runs while Gillespie and Littlejohn produced three each.
Not to be forgotten, it was a nice victory in the first contest of the day for the Golden Eagles as well, a 12-7 decision that saw a healthy attack from the Tech bats. After SIUE took a 1-0 lead in the first, Tech turned it into a 3-1 game in its favor.
Hinchman tied the game with an RBI single down the third-base line. Catcher Will Long then delivered a timely, two-run single up the middle. The Cougars squared things at 3-3 in the second, but the Golden Eagles were quick to remedy that situation.
It was Hinchman again starting the scoring, clobbering a two-run moon shot to right-center field for a 5-3 lead. It marked his 11th of the year and 44th of his career. Senior Gavin Johns turned it into a 7-3 advantage for the purple and gold, hammering his own two-run bomb to left-center field later in the frame.
Tech kept the momentum rolling in the fourth, scoring five more times to all but put the game out of reach. As if it was foreshadowing his historic performance in game two, Littlejohn ripped a two-run double to right-center field to kick off the scoring run.
Johns fired a single up the middle to drive in his fellow senior for a 10-3 lead, setting up Lacy for another set of fireworks. The sophomore made his chance count, smashing a two-run jack to left-center field for the 12-2 advantage.
The Cougars plated four runs down the stretch, but relievers Brock Myers and Grant Phillips combined to finish the final seven-and-one-third frames with relative ease. Myers earned his fourth win of the year while scattering four hits, two runs and walk with four punch outs.
Phillips, yet another Tech senior making a huge impact on Senior Weekend, picked up his third save of the year. The right-hander tossed three-and-a-third frames with just two earned runs allowed.
Gillespie and Hinchman each scored three times in the game, with Hinchman gathering three hits and three RBI. Littlejohn drove in a pair with two runs and two hits while Johns collected three RBI and two runs on two hits. Lacy, Johnson and Gillespie all produced multi-hit efforts as well.
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information