By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The magnificent 2017 campaign officially came to an end for the Tennessee Tech baseball team early Sunday evening, as the Golden Eagles (41-21) fell to No. 15 ranked and No. 1 seeded Florida State (41-21) in the NCAA's Tallahassee Regional, 5-3.
The Tech squad, which claimed an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament after winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title just over one week ago, gained two leads throughout the contest and nearly mounted a historic rally in both the eighth and ninth frames. In the end, the home-town Seminoles – which actually played as the visiting team due to a coin flip the night before – held on to advance to the regional championship game against Auburn later in the evening.
"I'm just really proud of our young men," head coach Matt Bragga said. "They battled really hard, and fought really hard, just didn't have quite enough to continue on this weekend. But it was a good regional. We enjoyed Tallahassee a lot and wish we could have got a few more W's, but what a great place to come play. What an incredible environment; great fan base, loved them, even when we weren't playing, love these guys, it was great."
As it did all tournament long, the Golden Eagle defense shined again on Sunday, helping hold the Florida State offense at bay through the first two innings. A base hit and walk with one out showed promise for the Seminoles early on and the team seemed destined to score on another single to left field by Quincy Nieporte.
Fundamental defense and a base-running gaff changed that in a blink of an eye. FSU's Jackson Lueck rounded second and seemed to miss the hold-up signal at third base. TTU left fielder Collin Harris fired the ball in quickly to third baseman Trevor Putzig, who noticed Lueck over extended at second and threw a laser to second baseman Matt Jones.
Jones ran down Lueck, who had broken back towards third, and then tossed the ball to senior catcher Chris Brown as the Seminoles' Dylan Busby inexplicably broke for the plate during the Lueck run down. Brown then chased him down to finish off a massive inning-ending double play.
In the second, Florida State put two runners on the base paths with one out, looking to break open the scoring. Tech starter Evan Fraliex fanned Tyler Holton for the second out, but plunked the next batter to load the bases. He rallied to end the inning, however, forcing a pop up to Taylor Walls.
And then the rain came. A large storm cell entered the area, first with lightning, and then with a heavy downpour. The inclement weather forced a two-hour and 25-minute delay that forced Fraliex from the contest.
Coming back onto the field, the Golden Eagle offense struck, with junior designated hitter Ryan Flick drawing a leadoff walk. Two batters later, Brown singled to right center field and Jones followed with a hit by pitch to load the bases. After a second out, left fielder Collin Harris drew a beautiful six-pitch, RBI walk, despite falling behind 1-2.
Sophomore Ethan Roberts took over on the hill, but Florida State immediately responded with an RBI single by Lueck after a leadoff walk and balk put Busby in scoring position. Roberts rallied in the frame to strikeout out two and record three straight outs to end the frame.
Both sides traded zeroes in their next two chances at the plate, but the Golden Eagles struck again in the fifth for their second lead of the game.
Sophomore center fielder Alex Junior led off with a single up the middle. Two batters later, fellow sophomore, Kevin Strohschein, singled through the left side to set up Flick with some more heroics against a familiar face.
The Seminoles turned to Alec Byrd in relief after the two singles, who gave up the game-winning, two-run double to Flick in Tech's comeback victory Friday evening. Flick won the battle again, ripping an RBI single through the right side to drive in Junior and give the Golden Eagles a 2-1 lead.
Again, Florida State had an answer, tying the game in the sixth with a leadoff home run by Drew Mendoza and taking the lead with an RBI single by J.C. Flowers off of new reliever Ty King. The sophomore hurler did force the next FSU batter to hit a grounder up the middle, which Jones snagged, stepped on second and then hurled an off-balance throw to first baseman Chase Chambers for the inning-ending double play.
Florida State picked up two important insurance runs in the eighth, taking a 5-2 advantage that proved the difference maker down the stretch. In the bottom of the frame, Tech made a run at a comeback bid, with Chambers drawing a leadoff walk.
Brown followed with a single through the right side before FSU turned to closer Drew Carlton. The junior struck out the next two Golden Eagle batters and had Harris down 1-2 before the junior laced a flare to center field to drive in a run. The RBI single cut the deficit to just two runs with Junior at the plate. He fought off three 0-2 offering before popping up to left field to end the threat.
Tech had one more great opportunity in the bottom of the ninth, with Putzig ripping a leadoff single to center field to kick things off. Strohschein just missed his pitch on an 0-1 count, popping up to first base for the first out. Flick then fought to a 2-2 count before narrowly missing a fastball for the second out. Chambers provided life, fighting off two tough pitches to single through the left side and bring the winning run to the plate.
Brown turned in fantastic at bat, working a 2-2 count on four pitches. The veteran then fought off three straight pitches to extend the Tech season a little longer each time with the hope he could catch a fastball fat and deposit over the fence in right center field. It was just not meant to be, as Carlton delivered a ball that ran a little in and low to just nip the inside corner of the zone for a tough, called strike three.
Three Golden Eagles turned in multi-hit efforts on the day, including Putzig, Brown and Strohschein. Junior hurler Travis Moths completed the final one and two thirds innings with just one hit allowed and two strikeouts.
The Tech squad finished the year breaking several school records, including for wins with 41. The 2017 squad marked just the second in program history to win both the OVC regular season and tournament titles. It also marked the first time in Bragga's tenure that the team defeated multiple, nationally-ranked opponents.
"What I am going to take away is what I have said all along: our leadership by our players is phenomenal," Bragga explained. "The great thing about it is that these veterans pass that down to the young guys and just like to continue to see that snowball. And I believe we will. It is a great program. We have been really good for a long time, but to see the leaders that we had come through here, we will miss them sorely."
"This is a great team," Flick mentioned when asked about the statement the Golden Eagles made over the weekend. "We love each other, we've had great team chemistry all year and we believe in each other. A lot of the press we were getting talked about our pitching staff and the struggles they were predicted to have, and our pitching staff threw it great all weekend. It's a great team. The Ohio Valley Conference is an underrated conference. A lot of people see those offensive numbers and think, 'oh no way, that's just inflated.' But there's a lot of good hitters in this conference and there's good pitchers in this conference, as you just saw. It's been an honor and it was fun to come down here and play."
Photo by Tony Marable