COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Needing wins to stay alive in the hunt
for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, the Tennessee Tech
baseball team came through in a big way, beating OVC foe
Jacksonville State 5-1 and 5-3 in a double header on Saturday.
Sophomore A.J. Kirby-Jones, junior Lee Henry and senior Ryan Dennick all had big games for the Golden Eagles (24-20-1, 9-11-1), as the team moved back into the sixth and final spot in the OVC tournament as the conference season winds down. Kirby-Jones had a huge day from the plate, going 2-for-4 in game one,with two home runs, and four RBIs. He also struck out nine batters injust four innings pitched, allowing just two hits in the save.
“You look at a performance like that, and that’s just what A.J. does,”head coach Matt Bragga said. “He is such a great baseball player in somany different ways.”
Dennick got the win for Tech, after pitching five scoreless innings, striking out three batters and scattering six hits.
“When you have a starting pitcher give you that kind of performance,five shutout innings, it really motivates you to go out there andfinish strong for him,” Kirby-Jones said. “I was in the zone a littlebit, and it felt really good to help my teammates out like that.”
The Golden Eagles took the lead off Kirby-Jones first home run, a two run shot in the second inning that put Tech up 2-0.
A leadoff double from Chad Hayes in the seventh inning turned into arun when Chad Oberacker hit an RBI single to give the Golden Eagles a3-0 lead. The very next batter was Kirby-Jones, who hit his secondhomer of the game, a bomb that cleared a 50-foot light pole in leftfield, putting Tech up 5-0.
“I was really focused coming into the game, and I had a couple of goodswings,” Kirby-Jones said. “Anything I can do to help the team win,that’s what I want to do. We understand how important these games are.”
Kirby-Jones’ two home runs were his 15th and 16th of the season,putting him alone in third place on Tech’s all-time single-season homeruns list. Only Mark Mayberry’s 17 and Jeremy Bonczynski’s 20 homeruns, both hit in Tech’s 1997 OVC championship season, are ahead of himon that list.
The Gamecocks (28-19, 10-9) got one run back in the top of the eighthafter a walk and a hit batter set up an RBI single, making the score5-1, but JSU would not come any closer.
I addition to Kirby-Jones, Hayes and Alex Henry also went 2-for-4 from the plate, and each scored a run in the first game.
In game two, the Golden Eagles found themselves down 3-1 heading intothe bottom of the sixth of the seven-inning contest. Kirby-Jones ledoff the inning with a walk, and freshman Ben Burgess followed that upwith a double, putting runners on second and third for sophomoreCasanova Donaldson, who hit an RBI single to pull Tech within one. EvanWebb walked in the next at-bat, to load the bases for Tate McMillan,who would knock in a run on a grounder to the third baseman to tie thegame at 3. Donaldson would score on a wild pitch before Hayes groundedout, and Alex Henry capped the four-run inning with an RBI single togive Tech a 5-3 lead.
“When we had the bases loaded with no outs, I was thinking that I’d bepitching in a 3-2 or maybe a 3-3 game,” said Golden Eagle startingpitcher Lee Henry. “When we got our fourth run I sort of switched overto a closer mentality. Then when we went up 5-3, I just startedsmiling.”
And he had a lot to smile about, as he forced two groundouts beforeending the game with his seventh strikeout in the seventh inning,capping off his fifth complete-game in five starts, and improving hisrecord to 7-2 on the season.
“I don’t like being taken out of games,” Lee Henry said. “Fortunately,god blessed me with a rubber band arm, so I’m able to pitch the wholegame. I love pitching the seven innings games.”
Burgess went 2-for-3 in that game with a double and an RBI, and Alex Henry, Donaldson and McMillan also added one RBI each.
Alex Henry and Burgess each finished the day going 3-for-7 from theplate, and Donaldson finished 2-for-6. Chad Oberacker hit his fourthtriple of the season and scored two runs on the day.
“Our guys really believed in each other today, and as a result of thatall the little things came together, the clutch hits, the greatdefensive plays,” Bragga said.
The two wins move Tech into sixth place in the OVC standings, a halfgame ahead of Eastern Kentucky, which split a pair of conference gamesagainst Southeast Missouri on the day. The Golden Eagles own thetie-breaker over EKU as Tech swept a three-game series against theColonels in Cookeville earlier this season.
Austin Peay is the other team on Tech’s heels. The Gov’s had a pair ofgames against OVC-leading Eastern Illinois rained out Saturday, butwere only percentage-points behind Tech entering the day. The Gov’s andPanthers will attempt to play a double-header Sunday.
The series finale between Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State will beSunday at 1 p.m., with a special senior-day presentation preceding thegame. It will be Tech’s final conference game of the season, as everyother OVC team has three more conference games scheduled.