By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – On the heels of arguably the most dominant regular season run in Ohio Valley Conference history, it comes as no surprise that the league's postseason awards list finds blanketed by the names of the No. 18 Tennessee Tech baseball team. Announced by the league on Tuesday, the Golden Eagles boast a league-record 10 All-OVC First and Second Team selections, not to mention an All-Freshman Team nod and of course, the Player, Pitcher and Coach of the Year honors. This marks the first time since 2014 (Southeast Missouri) that a program has boasted the OVC's Player, Pitcher and Coach of the Year in the same season.
In his 15th season at the helm of the Tech program, head coach Matt Bragga collected his second-consecutive and fourth overall OVC Coach of the Year award, guiding the Golden Eagles to their best campaign in school history. Tech claimed its second-straight and 10th overall regular season title, capturing a school-record 46 wins along the way that stands just two away from breaking the OVC all-time mark. The purple and gold won more league games in 2018 (27) than any other program in conference history.
The Golden Eagles entered the national polls on Apr. 9 for just the second time in program history, and have since run off seven straight weeks of at least on national ranking, including the final three weeks of the regular season as a consensus, Top-25 team. Tech turned in the best stretch of baseball in conference history from Mar. 13 to Apr. 29, winning 28-straight games to set program and league records for longest winning streak and finishing just six shy of the NCAA all-time record of 34. Among the streak were 17-consecutive OVC victories, tying the league's all-time mark. Tech won 13 of its 14 weekend series on the season, including the final 11-straight and all 10 OVC series. The squad also finished a perfect 11-0 in midweek action, a first for the program.
Known as a prolific offensive unit, Bragga built on the legacy and success established by his many successful teams coming into the year to produce the nation's top offensive unit. Entering the postseason, the Golden Eagles rank first nationally in batting average (.347), scoring (10.8 runs/game), runs (572), hits (989), home runs/game (2.28), slugging (.610) and on base percentage (.439), and are second nationally in doubles (2.43/game). Tech's 121 home runs on the year sit just seven away from breaking the OVC record, while the team is just the second in the BBCOR bat era (since 2011) to have 100 or more home runs in a single season.
Bragga, who won his 400th career game this season to enter the OVC Top-10 coaching victories list, is one of just seven coaches in league history to repeat at OVC Coach of the Year and first since Eastern Illinois' Jim Schmitz in 1998 and 1999. Tennessee Tech Hall of Famer and OVC Hall of Famer David Mays, who won five total OVC Coach of the Year honors, also repeated as OVC Coach of the Year (1996 and 1997).
Junior outfielder / designated hitter Kevin Strohschein, who in 2015 became the first player in OVC history to be named the league's Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season, captured his second OVC Player of the Year honor after helping Tech to a 46-7 overall record, 27-3 OVC record and a national ranking that ranked as high as No. 16. In 53 games this season, the McDonough, Ga. native hit .396 with 93 hits, 62 runs scored, 16 doubles, three triples, 16 home runs, 60 RBI, a .694 slugging percentage and a .453 on base percentage. Those numbers helped him rank first nationally in total bases, second hits, 12th in slugging, 14th in batting and 15th in runs.
His numbers were even better in OVC play. In 30 league games, Strohschein ranks first in the OVC in batting average (.423) and hits (55), third in total bases (3.20/game), fourth in slugging percentage (.738), fifth in runs (1.27/game) and on base percentage (.483), seventh in home runs (0.30/game) and 10th in doubles (0.40/game). He leads the OVC in multi-hit games (32) while adding 13 multi-RBI contests and tied Tech's program record with three home runs in a single game in February. He became the first player in OVC history to record three seasons with at least 60 RBI, three seasons with at least 75 hits and three seasons with at least 55 runs scored. He is also just the fourth player in league history (and second in school history) to record three seasons with at least 14 home runs.
Strohschein has been named a semifinalist for two National Player of the Year awards, including the Golden Spikes Award presented by USA Baseball (1 of 25 players) and the Dick Howser Trophy by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (1 of 35 players). He is one of four players in Tech history to be named OVC Player of the Year and just the fourth player in league history to win the honor multiple time, equaling the feat achieved by Murray State's George Dugan (who won three-straight awards from 1963-65), Jacksonville State's Clay Whittemore (2007 and 2008) and Southeast Missouri's Trenton Moses (2011 and 2012).
Senior hurler Travis Moths captured OVC Pitcher of the Year honors after dominating on the hill for the Golden Eagles and making history along the way. After coming out of the bullpen a year ago, Moths moved into the No. 1 starters role for Tech this season and ranks second nationally in pitching victories with 12, which tied the Golden Eagle program's single-season record and is just two off the OVC all-time mark. For his career Moths now has 24 victories, which is also a new Tech career record.
Overall he started 14 games, compiling a 12-1 record and 4.07 E.R.A., which ranked seventh in the OVC. He tallied 79.2 innings, striking out 84 batters (sixth in the OVC) and holding opponents to a .263 batting average. His only loss of the season came in the third game of the year at Troy, and after that contest he was 11-0 in his final 12 starts. He fanned a season-high nine batters against each UT Martin, Austin Peay, Southern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky. Moths made the most of pitching for the nation's top-ranked offense, as the Golden Eagles averaged 8.2 runs/start for the senior. Moths is the third Tennessee Tech pitcher to be named OVC Pitcher of the Year since the award was first handed out in 1992 (Mark Maberry in 1997 and Lee Henry in 2010 were the others).
Tech placed a program-record six players on the All-OVC First Team, including Strohschein (designated hitter), Moths (starting pitcher), Chase Chambers (first base), John Ham (second base), Trevor Putzig (third base) and Ethan Roberts (relief pitcher).
Chambers, who earned a place on the All-OVC Second Team in 2017 and the OVC All-Freshman Team in 2015, led the league in batting average, RBI and on base percentage. In 53 games, he hit .416 with 68 runs scored, 89 hits, 11 doubles, 15 home runs, 75 RBI, a .687 slugging percentage, 40 walks to just 22 strikeouts, a .515 on base percentage and a .988 fielding percentage. Named a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, he was twice named OVC Player of the Week and finished the regular season as the Tech program's all-time leader in runs scored (193). He sits just two RBI from breaking the school's single-season record of 76 set by Brandon Thomasson in 2014. He set the program's single-game record with five walks in a contest at Eastern Illinois. The senior ranks fourth in OVC history in career RBI (207), and second in program history behind only Zach Stephens (2011-14), who holds the league record of 229. Chambers also ranks ninth in career runs scored in league history, second in program history in home runs (47) and fourth in school history in hits (257) and walks (123).
Ham joined the Golden Eagles for the 2018 campaign as a junior college transfer from Dyersburg State, and immediately jumped into the starting second baseman role. The junior finished his brilliant season batting .335 in 52 games, highlighted by 62 runs scored, 70 hits, 15 doubles, three triples, 13 home runs, 58 RBI, a .622 slugging percentage, .427 on base percentage and .980 fielding percentage. He became just the second Tech player in the last 30 years to hit for the cycle and was twice named the OVC's Player of the Week. Ham's 13 long balls rank as the most by a Tech second baseman in program history, as does his 58 RBI. He also put together the best fielding percentage by a Golden Eagle second baseman in the past 10 years.
Putzig claimed his second All-Conference honors after earning a Second Team nod in 2017 while punishing the ball all year. In 46 games (he missed some time due to injury), the senior hit .330 with 55 runs scored, 59 hits, 11 doubles, 14 home runs, 63 RBI, a .626 slugging percentage, 37 walks, a .439 on base percentage and a .941 fielding percentage. The third baseman racked up OVC Player of the Week honors after tying the Tech program record with three home runs in a single game in February and displayed that power all year to the tune of a career-high 14 round trippers. He ranks fourth on the program's all-time career list for doubles (50) and has cracked the top-10 in hits, RBI and runs scored as well. At the end of the April, he was named Tennessee Tech Athletics' Man of the Year, the highest honor awarded by the department.
Roberts rewrote the history books on his way to his first nod on the First Team, perhaps exceeding the potential shown while earning a spot on the OVC All-Freshman Team in 2016. The junior closer compiled a league-best 2.35 ERA with a 4-1 record and program single-season record 14 saves. In 22 appearances, the Sparta native notched 53 and two thirds innings on the mound, allowing 45 hits 14 runs, 14 earned runs and striking out an absurd 82 batters to just 14 walks. He also held opponents to a .227 average. An OVC Pitcher of the Week, he became the program's all-time leader in saves, currently totaling 29 in three years, and also became the first Tech pitcher ever to earn saves against both Tennessee and Vanderbilt in the same season. Already Tech's single-season leader in strikeout/walk ratio (minimum 30 innings pitched) from a season ago – he finished with 77 Ks to just 13 walks for a 5.92 mark – Roberts has been just as good this season, compiling a mark of 5.86. He also ranks third nationally in strikeouts per nine innings (and second in school history) with a mark of 13.75.
Kaleiwahea jumped into the starting backstop's role with the departure of Chris Brown and never missed a beat. The senior erupted onto the scene with a .391 batting average in 52 games, finishing the year with 61 runs scored, 77 hits, 15 doubles, seven home runs, 46 RBI, a .584 slugging percentage, a .483 on base percentage and a .983 fielding percentage. An OVC Player of the Week in May, he ranked second in league play with a .421 average and .518 on base percentage.
Garza earned his second All-OVC honors after claiming a First Team nod in 2017, turning in a monster year at the plate. Only the second Tech player ever named a semfinalist for the Brooks Wallace Award, the senior hit .320 in 53 games with 62 runs scored, 71 hits, 15 doubles, 15 home runs, 63 RBI, a .590 slugging percentage, a .405 on base percentage and a .955 fielding percentage. A Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week, he put together a 50-game reached base streak, including 48-straight contests this season. Garza's 15 round-trippers rank as the most by a Golden Eagle shortstop in program history, as does his 63 RBI.
Osborne made his bat sing when called upon to play in the outfield, batting .321 in 43 games while racking up 33 runs scored, 50 hits, 14 doubles, nine home runs, 43 RBI and a .596 slugging percentage. The junior also spent time on the hill, appearing in nine contests, including two starts, while posting a 1-0 record with a 7.41 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 17 innings pitched. He finished a whopping 5-for-5 with two long balls, two stolen bases, three runs scored and four RBI in Tech's win at Tennessee and also racked up eight RBI in a contest at Murray State that featured one of his two grand slams on the year.
Evey made the transition from bullpen to No. 2 starter quickly at the beginning of the year and never looked back. The junior hurler posted a 3.93 ERA and 6-0 record in 14 appearances and 12 starts while compiling 66 and a third inning of work. He struck out 79 batters to just 23 walks while holding batters to just a .226 average and 56 hits. He ranks as one of just two pitchers nationally to record his team's most strikeouts in a start and relief appearance this season, fanning eight in his first relief showing of the year before punching out 13 batters in his second start of the season. His 10.72 strikeouts per nine innings ranks third in the OVC.
Rookie Tyler Sylvester wrapped up the list of those Golden Eagles earning recognition from the OVC, as the redshirt freshman was named to the league's All-Freshman Team. The right-handed hurler posted a 4.56 ERA and 3-1 record in 19 appearances out of the bullpen for Tech. He notched four saves as well, ranking second on the team, while finishing 23 and two thirds innings with 19 hits and 11 walks. He punched out 24 batters while holding hitters to a measly .213 average.
Tech will kick off its quest for a second-straight OVC Tournament title on Thursday, May 24 at Choccolocco Park in Oxford, Ala. The contest is currently slated for an 11 a.m. CT start and will pit the No. 1 Golden Eagles against the winner of No. 4 Jacksonville State and No. 5 Austin Peay.
Photos by Tony Marable & Thomas Corhern