Kirby-Jones named tournament MVP
PADUCAH, Ky. – Evan Webb was jumping up and down at third base, doing the happy dance like a little boy as he watched a Jacksonville State fly ball arc into short left center field.
A moment later, the ball floated down into Chad Oberacker’s glove and the dugout emptied. The Golden Eagles hog-piled freshman pitcher Ben Burgess, who just capped off four scoreless innings in relief as Tennessee Tech finished an amazing unbeaten run in Brooks Stadium to win the 2009 Ohio Valley Conference Baseball Tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid to next week’s NCAA Tournament.
“Just like every team here, that was the plan,” said Golden Eagle head coach Matt Bragga. “We were able to be the last one standing at the end, after playing a whole lot of good baseball teams.
“Our kids really battled hard today,” Bragga said. “When we came out, we wanted it so badly, and maybe that made it a little more difficult. You also have to give a lot of credit to Jacksonville State. They battled hard. But I’m really proud of our guys, they really worked hard and they deserved it.”
Webb’s fifth inning, two-run home run erased an early 3-1 JSU lead and tied the game at 3-all. Burgess took over for starter Chason Choate and the pair held the explosive Gamecock offense scoreless for nine consecutive innings.
Tech strung together a walk and two singles in the top of the 10th to score a go-ahead run, and it was enough to give Bragga’s team its second consecutive one-run, 10-inning win over JSU in the tournament.
Sophomore A.J. Kirby-Jones was named the Most Valuable Player in the tournament, one of six Golden Eagles listed on the all-tournament team.
“The great thing about it is that everybody came through and did their job,” said the sophomore from Webb School in Knoxville. “We got the clutch hits when we needed them, and a great pitching performance from Ben Burgess.
“We just came together, and everybody played their best baseball at the right time,” Kirby-Jones said. “We tried not to press too much, and we came through when we needed a big hit.”
Kirby-Jones made a defensive play in the bottom of the seventh to gun down the potential winning run at the plate for the Gamecocks. In the top of the 10th, he delivered a one-out single to drive in Alex Henry with what proved to be Tech’s winning run.
“It’s so funny because you expect doubles and home runs from A.J., but that’s what he brings to the yard, the threat of a single in the hole when you need it, a double off the wall or a home run over the scoreboard,” Bragga said. “He is just that type of player, day in and day out, and that’s the neat thing about A.J. He is just so consistent, and stays level headed through it all and he is just a great kid.”
Joining Kirby-Jones on the all-tournament team were Burgess, Oberacker, Casanova Donaldson, Ryan Dennick and Lee Henry.
There were lots of heroes for the Golden Eagles, who won their third OVC Tournament crown in 13 years, the most by any league team.
The list begins with sophomore pitcher Chason Choate, making only his fourth start of the year. After JSU had reached him for a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the first, he settled down and held the Gamecocks scoreless for the next five frames.
Choate worked six innings, scattering five hits while allowing three runs. He walked four and struck out four, pitching around JSU hits in the second and third, and tossing 1-2-3 innings in the fourth and fifth. He gave up a walk in the sixth, but got an inning-ending double play ball to squash that threat.
“He (Chason) threw a couple innings yesterday, we had him hot in the pen on Wednesday, hot in the pen on Thursday, and he comes back and gives us six today,” Bragga said. “That was really amazing, and then for Ben to come in and give us some great innings, that was huge.”
Alex Henry led off the game with a solo home run
Next on the list is Burgess, who relieved Choate after two walks to open the seventh inning. A sacrifice fly put two runners in scoring position for the Gamecocks with one out, setting the stage for Kirby-Jones to make a game-changing play.
Dangerous leadoff hitter Todd Cunningham chopped a hard grounder toward first where Kirby-Jones fielded it and saw the runner at third breaking for home. He fired to the plate, where senior catcher Cory Wright applied the tag for the second out and prevented the Gamecocks from taking the lead.
Burgess got out of the inning, then worked around a leadoff single in the eighth. He retired nine in a row, including 1-2-3 efforts in the bottom of the ninth and 10th.
The freshman, who played catcher, outfield, designated hitter and pitcher this season, earned his first career win (1-2), He pitched four scoreless innings, allowing one hit, walking one and striking out four.
Alex Henry led off the contest with a solo home run to stake Tech to a 1-0 lead, then Webb delivered a two-run home run in the fifth to tie the game as long balls accounted for all three runs.
Henry, Oberacker and Webb each had two of Tech’s eight hits off four JSU pitchers.
JSU had a couple of stellar efforts from pitchers Chase Smith and Jordan Beistline. Smith worked four innings, allowing three runs on three hits. In the middle innings, Beistline pitched 5.1 scoreless innings, giving up three hits and one walk while striking out four.
Bill Henke (2-3) took the tough-luck loss for the second straight night, giving up two hits and a walk, and the go-ahead run without retiring a batter.
Tech, which won OVC Tournament titles in 1997 and 2001, will learn Monday where it will play when NCAA Regional action begins later this week as the season continues for the Golden Eagles.
“I’m looking forward to the chance to show everybody what Tennessee Tech is all about, and just to have fun and keep playing baseball,” said Kirby-Jones about the first appearance in the NCAA Tournament for every member of the squad.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Nobody outside of this clubhouse thought we had a chance at this, and it was a great feeling to beat Jacksonville State five times this year and win the championship.”
Tech came into the year having lost five straight to Jacksonville State, but the Golden Eagles went 5-0 this year against the Gamecocks, including a three-game sweep of the conference series and two in the OVC tournament.
(Photos by Tony Marable)