By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The game had it all; a pitcher's duel, clutch hitting, superb defense, broken records and even a home run robbery. After the dust settled, Tennessee Tech came out on top, defeating No. 15 Florida State in the first round of the NCAA's Tallahassee Regional, 3-1.
The Golden Eagle baseball team (41-19) overcame a sluggish start with the sticks and a 1-0 deficit, rallying in the eighth and ninth frames to upend the region's top-seeded Seminoles (39-21) at historic Dick Howser Stadium. With the victory, Tech will face off against the No. 3 seeded Auburn Tigers Saturday evening at 6 p.m. CT. Florida State will take on UCF in an elimination game at noon.
From the very beginning, the starting pitchers set the tone for the night. Florida State's Drew Parrish kept the Tech offense off balance for much of the contest, striking out 12 batters over seven and a third innings. He held the Golden Eagles to just two hits and nearly off the scoreboard.
Golden Eagle hurler Michael Wood turned in one of the better outings of his career, holding the Seminole bats to just four hits and one earned run. He walked two and struck out two while completing six innings on the hill, but his approach leaned on of the regional field's best defenses, and it came up huge several time throughout the night.
"It was a good pitching game," head coach Matt Bragga said. "I think pitching and defense played a huge part for both sides. [Michael] Wood and Mo [Travis Moths], they were phenomenal for us. When you get good pitching, you got a chance to stay in the game, as long as the defense is good, and we have good defense. That kept us in the game, even when our bats were not doing very good because [Drew] Parrish was doing such a good job. We hung around, we continued to pitch and defend, did just enough offensively to get to the bullpen, and then we were able to expand and get ahead. Then Moths shut it down in the ninth [inning]. It was a good win. They're resilient, they fight, that's what they do, that's what they've done all year, and that's just who this ball club is."
The Tech defense started its incredible display in the third inning, after Florida State led off the frame with a base hit by Matt Henderson. Wood struck out the J.C. Flowers for the first out and then induced a line drive off the bat of Taylor Walls. Shortstop David Garza was quick to snatch the ball clean and then flip the ball over to Chase Chambers at first base for a double play to end the inning.
In the fourth, Florida State put runners on first (Dylan Busby) and second (Jackson Lueck) to kick off the frame, with the Quincy Nieporte working a 3-0 count at the plate. Determined not to be rattled, Wood spun quickly around and a fired the ball to second baseman Matt Jones, who applied a tag to pick off the Busby at second. Wood then dug deep, fighting back at the dish to strike out Nieporte. A ground ball out to Chambers ended another threat.
The Seminoles threatened again in the sixth, this time starting with a leadoff walk to Flowers and single by Walls. Wood worked a fly ball to Kevin Strohschein in right field for the first out. Lueck came to the plate and put a charge into a ball to left field that seemed destined to just clear the wall for a three-run home run.
Sophomore left fielder Nick Osborne made a beautiful play on the ball, snaring it just as it looked like it might clear the top of the wall and saving the Golden Eagles from a 3-0 deficit. Nieporte did single in the next at bat, driving in one run, but the FSU first baseman made a base running error, getting caught in run down to end the frame and limit the damage to one.
Junior reliever Travis Moths took over on the hill for the Golden Eagles in the seventh, making things look easy with a pop up, a ground out to first base and strikeout for a 1-2-3 frame. On the other side, Tech used a rarely seen commodity among its offense; small ball.
Senior catcher Chris Brown led off the eighth inning by singling to left field. In need of a run and some momentum on offense, Bragga brought in freshman Cody Littlejohn to pinch run for Brown. Jones laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the runner over and convince Florida State into a pitching change.
Drew Carlton took the mound for Florida State, facing off against Osborne. On the third offering, Osborne laid into one, crushing a ball off the top of the 30-foot fence in right field for a double. Littlejohn initially didn't move, holding just long enough to see if he needed to tag. Once he got the green light, however, it was off to the races as he rounded third and dented home plate for the tying run.
In the bottom half, Moths again finished three-up and three-down, fanning the first and third batter of the frame with Trevor Putzig making a nifty play for the second out. Flowers attempted to reach on a bunt single, but the junior third baseman charged the ball hard and rocketed it over to Chambers at first for the out.
The ninth was where the Golden Eagles made their mark, with Putzig kicking things off with a nice, seven-pitch at bat that resulted in a single to center field. Three pitches later, Strohschein ripped a double down the right field line, putting two runners in scoring position with no outs and the always dangerous Ryan Flick coming to the plate.
Florida State opted for another pitching change, turning to southpaw Alec Byrd to try and stave off Flick. The Tech designated hitter had other plans. On the second pitch, he blasted a shot down the first base line just past the outstretched glove of Nieporte, driving in both Putzig and Strohschein for a two-run double and 3-1 lead.
The Seminoles would escape the inning with no more damage, but the Tech offense woke up just in time to take the lead and turn it over to the fantastic pitching of Moths and stellar defense.
"We never feel like we're out of a game," said Flick after the contest. "I've said that all year. If you don't come through a certain night, you feel like the guy behind you is going to. It took us a while tonight, but we did finally break through and do just enough. But man, what a performance by our pitchers. They're the MVPs tonight."
Moths forced a ground ball to shortstop to start the ninth, with Chambers saving an error with a spectacular play at first. As Garza made a play on the ball, he made a small bobble right before his throw, causing Chambers to have to come of the bag up the line. The junior first baseman snared the ball and in the same motion swung around to tag Busby for the first out.
Chambers then secured a soft ground ball and flicked it over to covering Moths for the second out of the frame, a bang-bang play that was made due to his incredible defensive skills. Fittingly, Moths overpowered Nieporte for the final out, getting the slugging first baseman to whiff on a high fastball to clinch the Golden Eagle victory.
Moths was perfect in relief, facing the minimum of nine batters in three innings of work. He struck out four Seminoles while moving to 5-1 on the season.
The victory represented Tech's 41st of the season, breaking the program record of 40 set in 2013 and tied in 2014. The win also marked the first time since 2001 the Golden Eagles won on the first day of a regional, the last time coming in a 9-7 victory over Wake Forest in the Knoxville Regional.
Head coach Matt Bragga and the Golden Eagles will match-up with his long-time friend and former colleague Butch Thompson and the Auburn Tigers Saturday evening.
"It's special," Bragga explained about the match-up. "There is this unwritten rule that Coach [Brian] Schoop [Former Birmingham-Southern Head Coach] taught me, 'You don't like playing your friends because someone has got to lose'. So you might as well beat them pretty well because then it's not a big deal. That's the only bad thing about tomorrow is that someone has got to lose. It is fantastic to go against Butch Thompson, who I admire as a baseball coach but more as a human being."
Fans can follow Tech's contest against Auburn either on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app or on the radio on FM 107.7 / AM 1400 The HUB with Dylan Vazzano on the call for the latter.
Photo by Tony Marable