By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Ala. – Every batter came to hit, every pitcher came to throw and every player came to play defense, and that made all the difference as the Tennessee Tech baseball team (40-19) captured the 2017 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship Saturday evening, defeating No. 3 seeded Belmont (31-29) by a decisive and final score of 16-4.
The victory propels the Golden Eagles to their fifth NCAA Regional in program history and first since the 2009 championship team. It also marks just the second time in school history that Tech takes home both the OVC regular season and tournament titles in the same year, joining the 1997 squad.
The Tech pitching staff showed up and shoved, requiring just two arms to get the job done for the third straight game. Senior starter Evan Fraliex turned in yet another fantastic performance in the OVC Tournament, the third of his career. Fellow senior hurler Kit Fowler saved his best career outing for the brightest lights.
Fraliex moved to 3-0 on the year after tossing five innings of five-hit ball and holding the Bruins to just three runs. The Lexington, Ky. native struck out three and allowed just one walk while limiting a Belmont squad that had just eliminated No. 2 Morehead State with a hefty 11 runs to just a handful early.
Fowler took over starting in the sixth frame and never looked back. A native of Marco Island, Fla., he allowed just two hits and one unearned run (scoring on a passed ball and subsequent wild pitch). More impressively, he struck out a career-high 10 batters with zero walks, including setting down the sides in both the seventh and ninth innings by strikes. Fowler took home his second save of the season as well, punching out Bruin first baseman Drake Byrd to kick off the celebration and eventual dog pile on the pitcher's mound at Choccolocco Park.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles were special all weekend, not making a single error in three games. If it was possible, however, the team turned it up a notch for the title game. With Belmont on the board with a solo home run with two outs in the first, the defense struck to end the frame after a single by Matt Cogen. Fraliex made a nifty, quick move over to first baseman Chase Chambers to pick off Cogen to end the Bruins' two-out rally.
In the third, Belmont gathered a leadoff single to try and get things going offensively, but once again, the TTU defense stepped up. Senior catcher Chris Brown gunned down Tyler Walsh trying to swipe second, with senior second baseman Matt Jones snapping a beautiful tag for the out. Later in the frame, Chambers made a diving stop to his right and tossed a high ball to Fraliex, who made an incredible, leaping adjustment while sprinting to cover the bag and came down just ahead of the runner to end the inning.
Junior third baseman Trevor Putzig flashed the leather down the line in the fourth, making a back-handed stab on a rocket shot by Nick Egli that forced the runner at second to stay put as he rocketed a throw to first for the out. Chambers handled a piping-hot two-hopper with a back-handed snag in the fifth, easily beating out the Belmont runner to first to end that frame.
Offensively, the Golden Eagles were at their best Saturday, torching the ball to the tune of 16 runs on 19 hits, and that was without scoring in the first inning. It started in the second, with Chambers connecting on a 1-1 offering for a solo home run to right center field that tied the ball game at 1-1.
Tech took the lead for good in the third, with junior designated hitter Ryan Flick sealing his selection as the OVC Tournament MVP with his fifth long ball of the weekend, a three-run blast to left center field. It brought his tournament RBI total to a whopping 14 and he wasn't even done.
In the fourth, the Tech bats sung louder than ever, as six Golden Eagles dented home plate. With one out, junior shortstop David Garza, sophomore left fielder Nick Osborne and sophomore center fielder Alex Junior turned in back-to-back-to-back base hits, with Junior's resulting in an RBI. A pitching change solved no problems for the Bruins, as Putzig laced and RBI single to right center field and Junior scored on a wild pitch.
Two batters later, Flick connected for an RBI single through the right side, his 15th of the tournament. Two more batters later, Brown earned the final two RBI of the frame for Tech, launching a double that one-hopped the wall in left center field. The lead was now 10-1 in favor of the Tech.
After Belmont's two-run dinger in the fifth, the Golden Eagles answered in the bottom of the sixth with more fireworks. Strohschein clobbered his 14th moon shot of the year, a leadoff bomb to left center field on a 2-0 count. Following a four-pitch walk to Flick and fielder's choice by Chambers, Jones took his turn at the dish and delivered. The senior uncorked a two-run tattoo job to left center field for a 13-3 Tech lead.
Both sides traded runs in the seventh, but the Golden Eagles would get one more chance to dance around the bases before the dog pile. In the bottom of the eighth, junior Collin Harris, who subbed in at left field in the top half, unleashed arguably the longest home run of the entire tournament down the left field line, a two-run blast. It represented his 10th of the year, giving Tech five players with at double digit totals in the long ball column. Additionally, it marked the 50th home run hit in the 2017 OVC Tournament (easily a record) and put the Golden Eagles in sole possession of first place nationally in the category (97 on the year).
In addition to Flick earning OVC Tournament MVP honors, three other Golden Eagles took home a place on a the OVC All-Tournament Team, including Strohschein, Putzig and junior pitcher Travis Moths.
Flick hit .429 with a mind-boggling five home runs and staggering 16 RBI in three games during the weekend, making it an easy decision for his MVP accolades. Strohschein led the Golden Eagles with a .583 average, scoring five runs and driving in four more. He posted a .667 on base percentage thanks to his seven hits and three walks.
Putizg completed the tournament with a .500 average and six runs scored. Additionally, he reached base at a .563 clip and drove in one. Moths earned a spot after striking out eight batters with no walks in five innings of relief against Morehead State in the semifinal contest. He earned the victory in the game while limiting the potent Eagles to just one earned run.
Tech will learn its destination and opponents for the NCAA Regional Monday morning during the NCAA Selection Show at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2. Fans are encouraged to attend a watch party with the Golden Eagle squad in the Eagles' Nest at the Eblen Center, beginning at approximately 10:45 a.m.
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information