By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
MOREHEAD, Ky. – The game had it all. A huge offensive explosion in the first inning. A nearly five-hour rain delay. A season-record broken and, of course, a comeback for the ages. At the end of the day, which started at noon CT and did not end until nearly 9:30 p.m., it was the No. 16 Tennessee Tech baseball team that came out on top, rallying for an 18-17 victory at Morehead State.
The Golden Eagles (46-7, 27-3) capped an historic regular season with one of the most thrilling and intense finishes anyone could dream up, erasing a nine-run deficit over the final three innings to down the hometown Eagles (32-23, 18-12) by a riveting final of 18-17.
After falling to the Eagles on a walk-off single the night prior, the Golden Eagles came out firing on all cylinders in the first inning of the contest, dropping a five-spot on the scoreboard on a pair of round trippers from a couple of senior leaders. Starting catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea kicked it off with a two-run blast to center field. A few batters later, shortstop David Garza circled the bases with a three-run shot to left center field.
Morehead scored twice to answer, but a Tech run in the second made it a 6-2 lead. Again, the Eagles had a response, scoring four times in the bottom of the second to knot the game at 6-6. In the fourth, Morehead struck again, this time sending three across the plate to snag a 9-6 advantage.
Tech used the power of the long ball to chip away at that lead in the fifth. Junior Nick Osborne unloaded for a solo shot to left center field for his ninth home run of the season. Just a few pitches later, senior Collin Harris sent one to the nearly identical location, also representing his ninth dinger of the year.
With the gap down to just one, Morehead put a couple of runners on base with one out in the bottom half. And just like that, the skies opened up, dumping a massive rain shower over Allen Field that caused a four-hour, 55-minute delay.
By the time the two sides returned to action, day had turned to night and a new ball game looked like it was about to break out. Or at least the Eagles treated it like a new contest. The home team found new life with the break, unloading for eight runs in the bottom of the fifth to take a commanding and nearly insurmountable lead of 17-8.
Things looked particularly hairy for the visitors after both sides traded zeroes in the sixth. But head coach Matt Bragga's squad showed that same resiliency it had all season long that led to a program record in wins.
In the top of the seventh, Tech started to make its move. Taking advantage of a Morehead miscue, Garza reached second base with a single out. Osborne followed by driving him in with a single up the middle. Two batters later, redshirt freshman Zell Walker hammered a base knock to third base that drove in Osborne to make it a 17-10 contest. At the time, those two runs may have seemed unimportant, but they represented what was left to come.
Ty King worked a scoreless bottom half to hand the bats back over to his teammates, and the offense began to hum. Kaleiwahea drew a leadoff walk while junior Kevin Strohschein backed him up with a single to right field. On the next pitch, senior first baseman Chase Chambers rocketed a single to shortstop to drive in a run, prompting a pitching change.
The trade on the mound didn't matter as junior second baseman John Ham single up the middle for another RBI. A ground ball out advanced the runners to second and third base, allowing Chambers to dent home plate on a wild pitch a few offerings later. Osborne hit a grounder to third for the second out of the inning, but Tech's fourth run of the frame would cross to cut it to a 17-14 game.
Andrew O'Dwyer took his turn on the bump for the Golden Eagles in the eighth, handing the home team another goose egg for the scoreboard in his inning on the mound. And then the Golden Eagle offense went back to work.
Center fielder Alex Junior took four consecutive pitches out of the zone for a leadoff walk and Kaleiwahea soon followed, earning a free pass after starting with an 0-2 count. Strohschein ripped a single to right field, loading the bases with no outs for the slugger Chambers.
Morehead went back to its bullpen, looking for a southpaw to match-up with the left-handed swinging first baseman. The Farragut, Tenn. native made them wish they kept looking. On the very first pitch, Chambers demolished a Herculean blast to right field for a grand slam, sending the Golden Eagle dugout into a frenzy. With one swing of the bat, the senior brought Tech back from the dead and on top of the scoreboard for an 18-17 lead.
The grand slam marked the fifth of the four-year senior's career, tying the program's all-time record held by Matt Ballard (1989-92). It also provided him with RBI No. 75 on the year, putting him just two away from breaking the all-time, single-season, program record of 76 set by Brandon Thomasson in 2014.
The home team regrouped after the blast, recording three straight outs to head to the ninth with one last chance to undo the damage brought by the Golden Eagles.
Unfortunately for them, another Tech veteran had a date with history. Junior closer Ethan Roberts took to the hill, forcing a weak line drive to shortstop for the first out. After working a full count to the next batter, the right-hander forced more weak contact, a pop fly to left field. It took just four more pitches for the program's all-time leader in saves to finish the job, striking out the final batter of the contest to complete the incredible comeback.
Roberts picked up his 14th saves of the season with the inning of work, breaking his own single-season program mark set last season.
With win No. 46 on the year, Tech sits just two away from breaking the Ohio Valley Conference record of 47 victories, currently owned by the 1980 Western Kentucky and 2013 Austin Peay squads. Also, with five more long balls on the day, the Golden Eagles brought their season total to 121 and require just seven more to set a new standard for the league. Morehead State set the current record with 127 in 2002.
The win also means the Golden Eagles captured each of its 10 OVC series during the 2018 season, including an eye-popping seven sweeps.
The Golden Eagles will now turn their attention to winning their second straight OVC Tournament title. The tournament will begin on Tuesday, May 22 with No. 7 Murray State facing off against No. 8 Eastern Illinois.
Tech, the No. 1 overall seed by virtue of its OVC record 27 league wins, will play its first contest of the postseason on Thursday, May 24 at 11 a.m. CT against the winner of the match-up between No. 4 Jacksonville State and No. 5 Austin Peay. The tournament will once again commence at Choccolocco Park in Oxford, Ala.
Photo by Tony Marable