By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Ala. – For the second straight year, the No. 18 Tennessee Tech baseball team advanced to the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament behind an inspired effort over Morehead State.
The Golden Eagles (48-7) made history in the 10-5 victory over the Eagles (34-24), breaking the league's single-season wins record with their 48th of the year. The 48 Ws represent the highest total in the nation and extend the program record, which was topped in a 12-6 decision over Eastern Kentucky to clinch the OVC regular season title on May 11.
Tech walked off the bus ready to swing the bats, building a large lead early and letting a combination of fantastic pitching and clutch defense carry the team to its second straight OVC Tournament title game appearance.
It was apparent very early that the nation's top offense was ready to play, as center fielder Alex Junior led off the bottom half of the first with a five-pitch walk. After a quick out, junior Kevin Strohschein continued his hot start to tournament play, blistering a single through the left side to put runners on the corners.
Senior first baseman Chase Chambers followed with a single to right field, driving in the first run of the game and tying the program's single-season RBI record with his 76th of the year. A pair of Morehead miscues (throwing error and wild pitch) allowed Strohschein to score and Chambers to move on to third base before John Ham drew a walk. Shortstop David Garza then made it a 3-0 lead with a sacrifice fly ball to center field.
Morehead answered in the second after being shut down in the first by Tech hurler Marcus Evey. In the first, Evey hit the leadoff man on the first pitch of the game, but quickly responded with a strikeout, first-pitch fly out and first-pitch ground out.
The Eagles loaded the bases to start the second, but after an RBI single drove in the team's first run, Evey turned the page. He induced a 4-6-3 double play ball turned perfectly by Ham, Garza and Chambers. A second run scored on the play, willing sacrifice for the pair of outs. Evey then forced a week pop out to Ham in shallow right field to end the frame.
Tech jumped right back out with the sticks, with senior Brennon Kaleiwahea leading off the bottom half with a single up the middle. After falling behind 0-2 and fouling off the third pitch he saw, fellow senior Collin Harris unleashed a heavy hack to blast a two-run home run to left center field for a 5-2 lead. It marked his 10th long ball of the year, making him the sixth Golden Eagle to reach double-digits in dingers on the year, easily the best mark in the nation.
The Golden Eagles blew the game wide open in the third after a scoreless top half flung by Evey, starting with a leadoff single by Chambers. After Ham drew his second free pass of the contest, Garza unloaded on the first pitch he saw, crushing a three-run bomb to left center field. The senior's 16th round-tripper of the year, the most in the nation by a shortstop, provided an 8-3 lead. And Tech wasn't done just yet.
Junior Nick Osborne followed with a single up the middle and then stole second base prior to the first out of the frame. He would advance to third on the ground out, eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly ball to left field by Harris, who just missed his second homer of the contest.
Tech turned another 4-6-3 double play in the fourth and followed it up with a relatively rare double play in the fifth. After a sacrifice fly provided the first out and left runners on first and second base, Evey induced a line drive to right field. Osborne made a relatively easy catch and then rocketed a throw to Chambers at first base to double up the runner at first to end the frame and scoring threat.
Reliever Colton Provey took over on the bump in the sixth with no outs and two men on, beginning the run of a brilliant appearance out of the bullpen. He forced three, weak fly balls in-a-row, including one each to left center field, foul territory in left and to the shortstop.
He induced three more fly balls in the seventh for a 1-2-3 inning (including an incredible leaping grab by Harris in left field) and then received yet another 9-3 double play in the eighth. After issuing a leadoff walk, Provey forced a routine fly ball to right field that Osborne camped under and caught for the easy first out. The junior then fired a beebee to Chambers at first, catching the runner off guard and just beating him back for the team's fourth double play of the game.
Tech gained an insurance run in the eighth, with Harris leading off the frame with an infield single. He would eventually come around to score after a sac bunt, advancing on a fly ball out and then a wild pitch.
Provey managed one more out in the contest while Morehead State scored a run before Tech turned to redshirt freshman Tyler Sylvester for the final two outs. He induced a quick ground ball out that brought in the Eagles' second run of the frame and then forced a game-ending pop up to shortstop.
Evey picked up his seventh victory of the season after tossing five innings and holding one of the hottest offenses in the country to just three runs and five hits. Provey allowed just two runs, including one unearned, in three and one third innings of work.
Garza finished the contest 1-for-1 with two walks, four RBI and a home run while Harris completed the day 2-for-3 with two runs scored and three RBI.
Tech will play in the OVC Tournament championship game at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday at Choccolocco Park. The Golden Eagles will wait for the remainder of the tournament's bracket to play out to determine their opponent in the contest.
Photo by Thomas Corhern