By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech's battery was pushing it to the limit on Sunday, trying to do everything to close out the series against SIUE with a win.
With the way Haeli Bryson pitched and catcher Raleigh Lewis came through, there's definitely some thought that the Golden Eagles could be building some momentum entering the home stretch of the Ohio Valley Conference slate.
Tech (17-20, 11-11 OVC) claimed the 3-1 victory on Sunday to take the series two games to one. The Golden Eagles return home Tuesday in a league doubleheader with Jacksonville State, starting at 3 p.m.
"We've always known the keys to winning," said Tech head coach Michelle DePolo. "These last couple of series, it was about the execution more than knowing what to do or not to do. I'm really pleased with the way they executed in these last two weekends."
Bryson yielded four hits in the finale, just one creating a run as Zoe Schafer went yard in the top of the first. She finished the complete-game effort with one walk and three strikeouts. For the weekend, Bryson recorded a 0.88 earned run average with two complete-game victories, allowing two earned runs in 16 innings with two walks and five strikeouts, while batters hit .186 against her.
"The goal was just to hit my spots," Bryson said. "Even though I'm pretty sore, I just focused on that, going with the pitches called and staying ahead in the count to get some early outs."
It's an SIUE team that has potential to put up some big hits – Schafer's home run Sunday and the 10-run outburst in Saturday's nightcap as the obvious examples – so just to contain the Cougars to the one homer was a big victory in itself.
"It felt really great actually to do that," Bryson said. "I'm thankful for the defense behind me and the hitters scoring runs."
Bryson improved to 8-4 on the season. The junior saw her numbers get better last year before the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the slate, but Bryson has had a breakout season, improving her ERA to 2.55 on the year with six complete games, an impressive 11 walk to 45 strikeout ratio and a .227 opposing batting average.
"She's been hurting a little bit," DePolo said, "but we knew she's one of the keys to this team. She just does such a great job in placing the ball. She's really just a pleasure to call pitches for because she thinks the game. She's astute, she'll give me her input and there's a very good working relationship there. She's a very smart player, but she also hits her spots well. When you can do that and throw strikes, good things are going to happen. She's worked through her pain and I'm really proud of her effort this weekend."
Lewis, meanwhile, has started to become more comfortable at the plate after returning from an injury in the fall. She came in as a substitute to the injured Nicolle Nysted against Austin Peay and has started to see her bat come alive.
"I was out for about six months," Lewis said. "It's been really difficult, but I think I'm connecting at the right time, thank goodness. I'm hoping Nicolle can get healthy so we can add another bat and another pair of knees behind the plate."
On Sunday, she went 2-for-3 and drove in the game-winning and insurance runs, knocking in Shelby Penning with a single to right field in the fourth to break a 1-1 tie, then roping a single into center field to bring Chandler Caldwell home for the third and final run of the game.
"With runners in scoring position, I was just looking to go opposite field and give my girls a chance to score," Lewis said.
DePolo added, "It's just such a pleasure to see her back out here and feeling her stride out. I actually talked to her this week and told her she was starting to look good, like her normal self. After that injury in the fall, it's just taken a little while to get her back into her groove. It's a testament to herself – she's been working very, very hard on her own to make sure what she needs to do. With Nicolle out, she's really been stepping up."
Jessie Lowery also had a strong day at the plate, going 3-4 as Tech's other player to record a multi-hit game as the Golden Eagles collected nine hits. Mackenzie Fitzgerald, Caldwell and Penning also collected stolen bases in the win.
Schafer was the only Cougar batter to get more than one hit, while Lexi King and Rachael Quaritsch were only others to record a hit.
Sydney Baalman took the loss for SIUE (9-21, 9-14 OVC), allowing three runs on nine hits, walking two and striking out two.
With three weekends left in the OVC campaign, there's still a lot of games to play as the Golden Eagles have a pair against Jacksonville State on Tuesday, weekend trips to Eastern Kentucky and Belmont and a home series vs. UT Martin to close out the schedule. With 11 league games left, Tech is still certainly within reach.
With the pandemic decreasing this season's tournament field to the top four teams in the league, the Golden Eagles are roughly three-and-a-half games and percentage points back from that No. 4-spot with the Gamecocks holding on to a 14-9 record in the league. Eastern Kentucky (18-5) leapfrogged into the conference lead, while Southeast Missouri (16-5) and Austin Peay (18-7) hold on to the second and third spots. Murray State also has 14 wins, while UT Martin, Eastern Illinois and the Golden Eagles all have 11.
"Mathematically, it's still possible," DePolo said. "But with all the math, other teams have to have certain results too. We really need to focus on winning the games ahead of us and going from there. That's always the objective. It's way too early to be thinking about any other tactic."
Photo | Jim Dillon