By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Nine members of the Tennessee Tech baseball team took to Quillen Field at Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex one final time Saturday afternoon, and one last time those same nine individuals walked off the field in victory as part of the team's Senior Day.
The Golden Eagles (37-19, 23-7) defeated Ohio Valley Conference rival Morehead State (34-21, 18-11) in what marked the regular season finale for both teams, outlasting the Eagles in an offensive battle, 11-8.
Senior Day festivities included a cook out for players, coaches, family and friends at TTU's intramural complex prior to the game. Also, just before first pitch, all nine senior members of the Golden Eagles – Chris Brown, Chase Burkett, Ryan Flick, Kit Fowler, Evan Fraliex, Matt Jones, Brandon Smith, Jake Usher and Michael Wood – as well as senior manager Brandon Pullins, were honored on the field for their hard work and dedication to the program (pictured below). From that point on, it was game on.
Morehead State jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, scoring first for the third time in the series. Unlike the first two games, however, the Tech offense had no trouble finding an immediate and sizeable answer.
In the bottom half of the opening frame, junior infielders David Garza and Trevor Putzig drew back-to-back walks to lead things off, setting up sophomore right fielder Kevin Strohschein for some early fireworks. Having already homered the night before in the bottom of the ninth, the slugger uncorked another long ball on the Eagle pitching staff, this one a towering, three-run moon shot to left field for a 3-1 TTU lead.
Following a quick, 1-2-3 frame put together by starter Evan Fraliex and the Tech defense, the bats kept things rolling on the offensive end, starting with more fireworks out of the leadoff spot. Sophomore outfielder Nick Osborne quickly dispatched the first pitch of the frame over the wall and into the scoreboard in right field, pushing the lead to 4-1.
Two batters later, the advantage rose to 5-1 thanks to another jack job, this one courtesy of Garza. The shortstop powered his second wall-clearing missile of the year to left field, chasing Morehead State starter Dalton Stambaugh from the game.
The visitors scored twice in the top of the third, cutting the lead to two runs. They struck again in the fourth, forcing the exit of Fraliex, who tossed three and one third innings with three earned and four total runs allowed. Fellow senior Kit Fowler came on in relief, turning in one of the better performances of his career.
With the bases loaded and one out, Fowler struck out the nation's home run leader and OVC's RBI leader, Niko Hulsizer, on just three pitches. It took just three more pitches to set down Will Schneider on strikes and end the threat.
With the lead cut down to just one run, the Golden Eagle bats took control once again, thanks to a ground out to third base by Putzig. Two batters later, designated hitter Ryan Flick chopped a base hit up the middle, driving in a second Tech run for a 7-4 lead.
Osborne turned up the heat in the bottom of the fifth, smashing a two-run blast to right center field for his second round-tripper of the contest and a 9-4 advantage in favor of Tech.
Fowler cruised over the fifth and sixth frames, allowing no base runners and striking out two more Morehead State batters. In all he retired eight straight before giving way to junior Travis Moths. The right-hander handed the visitors another zero on the scoreboard in the seventh, but the Eagle bats could not be silenced forever.
In the eighth, Morehead State plated two runs early and threatened more damage. Sophomore closer Ethan Roberts jumped into action with one out and two men on. A walk and strikeout followed, setting up the Eagles with the bases loaded and two outs.
Schneider managed to single up the middle, driving in the team's third run of the frame in with a fourth rounding third and headed for home. Second baseman Matt Jones had other plans. The senior made an incredible diving stop behind second base in shallow center field, rolled over in a summer sault and fired the ball to senior catcher Chris Brown to nab the runner and end the inning with Tech still on top.
Tech turn in the eighth turned out to be frugal for the offense yet again, with Flick delivering a clutch, two-out single to right field that drove in two huge insurance runs. With just three outs to go, Tech led 11-7.
The Eagles led off the ninth with two base runners reaching before Roberts forced a fly out to center field. A single drove in a run for the visitors, cutting the Tech lead to 11-8. A walk loaded the bases, but Roberts was determined to end things once and for all. He cut down Ryan Kent on strikes, using three pitches for the second out. He then forced Reid Leonard into a fly ball out to right field for the final out of the contest.
The Sparta, Tenn. native tallied his 13th save of the season, breaking the single-season program record set by Seth Lucio during the 2013 campaign. Fowler picked up the win on the day, moving to an impressive 4-1 on the year.
With two team records already falling earlier in the series – Tech broke the single-season program mark for strikeouts on Thursday and the single-season record for extra base hits Friday – the Golden Eagles set one more on Saturday, the mark for most home runs in a year. Strohschein's first-inning moon shot proved to be the record-breaking smack, passing the 1997 and 2014 squads' total of 82 long balls.
Both teams will now set their sights on the OVC Tournament next week, with Tech claiming the No. 1 seed via the league's regular season crown clinched last weekend. Morehead State will enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed.
The Golden Eagles will receive a first-round bye in the tournament and will play at 12:30 p.m. CT against the winner of Wednesday's match-up between No. 4 seeded Jacksonville State and No. 5 seeded Southeast Missouri.
Top photo by Tony Marable
Bottom photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information