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April 9, 2014

Stephens sets career home run mark, leads Tech to 10-3 victory over Middle Tennessee



By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information Coordinator

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - It seemed only fitting that on a night in which everything came together for the Tennessee Tech baseball team, one of the most revered school records would see its end and a long streak would also come to pass, as the the Golden Eagles (26-9) defeated the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (15-18), 10-3 Wednesday evening.

A starter from his very first day in a Golden Eagle uniform, senior Zach Stephens stepped into the batters box in the fifth inning like it was just any other at bat. And until a hanging curveball on the eighth pitch of the at bat, it was. But after throwing fastball after fastball, MTSU pitcher Nathan Foriest switched things up to his own dismay. Stephens took the off-speed offering deep over the left center field fence, crushing his 52nd career home run while also propelling the Golden Eagles into the lead for good, up 4-3.

The long ball broke a tie that the first baseman held with former Tech baseball great A.J. Kirby-Jones for most career home runs in a Golden Eagle uniform. The moon shot was part of a 2-for-5 day at the plate for Stephens, who now sits just two home runs away from breaking the all-time Ohio Valley Conference career record currently held by former Western Kentucky great, Mike Williams.

Already Tech's career leader in runs driven in, Stephens now owns 203 career RBI after the contest, needing just six more to break the OVC's career record also held by Williams. The senior also remains just two hits from breaking Tech's all-time career hits record of 253 held by former Golden Eagle Chad Oberacker.

Outside of Stephen's career day at the dish, the entire Tech team peformed exceedingly well in the victory, clinching the first season series sweep of Middle Tennessee by the Golden Eagles since 1998.

Pitching played a strong roll in the Tech win, as five pitchers combined to record 14 strikeouts on the night. Starter John Gora struck out five Blue Raiders, tossing three innings and allowing three earned runs. Reliever Cain Sloan came in for the next two innings, punching out three and allowing just one hit and one walk while earning his first career victory in a Golden Eagle uniform.

Freshman Kyle Keatts took over for the sixth inning, surrendering one hit while striking out one. Senior righty Stanton Taylor covered innings seven and eight with two Ks and two hits. And finally, junior Justin Alexander finished off the game, fanning all three batters in the ninth to give Tech its 26th win of the year.

Both sides battled evenly through the first four frames, fighting to a 3-3 stalemate thanks to RBI from Stephens, junior David Allen, and Brandon Thomasson.

That was as close as things got for the Blue Raiders, as the Tech squad put together a huge two-out rally in the bottom of the fifth inning. Leadoff man Zach Zarzour started things off, singling to left center field. He would later be caught stealing, following a Tech strikeout, and the Middle Tennessee squad looked sure to head to the top of the sixth still knotted up with the Golden Eagles.

Things did not go according to plan for MTSU, however, as Stephens kicked off a six-run rally with his solo shot to left center field in the next at bat. Senior Daniel Miles followed with a walk and Thomasson drove him in when he crushed a double off the right center field wall. Junior shortstop Dylan Bosheers was hit by a pitch in the next plate appearance for Tech, putting two runners on base.

Jordan Hopkins laced a double to left center field, clearing the bases and setting up Tyler Brazelton for a chance. He didn't get one, as MTSU's Nathan Foriest plunked Brazelton and put runners on first and second. That brought in another Blue Raider pitcher, Jonathan Frebis. A passed ball led Hopkins and Brazelton to reach scoring position and Allen ripped a two-run double down the right field line, and at the conclusion of the inning, Tech suddenly held a 9-3 advantage.

Thomasson managed to finally go yard in the seventh inning after smacking a sac fly to the wall in the third and a double off the wall in the fifth. The solo shot marked the 10th of the season for the senior, giving him the lead in the OVC. It also propelled Tech to its final score of 10-3.

Thomasson finished 2-for-3 with three RBI and two runs scored while Stephens finished 2-for-5 with two RBI and two runs scored. Allen also had multiple hits, going 2-for-4 with three RBI.

The Golden Eagles will return to play on Friday as the team travels north for an important OVC series at Eastern Illinois. Game time on Friday is set for 3 p.m. CT as junior David Hess will take the hill for the Golden Eagles.