By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Miss. – "This is just so surreal," Tennessee Tech baseball head coach Matt Bragga proclaimed as he walked back to the team's dugout following his team's post-game press conference. And surreal the night was.
The No. 20 Golden Eagles (52-10) claimed the NCAA Oxford Regional Monday evening, becoming the first Ohio Valley Conference ever to earn a berth to the Super Regionals behind back-to-back, elimination-game victories over No. 4 Ole Miss (48-17).
Tech forced the if-necessary game during the evening after displaying the offensive prowess the nation has come to expect, dominating in a 15-5 win. The Golden Eagles then clinched history by claiming a thrilling, 3-2 nail-biter over the Rebels to earn a match-up with No. 14 Texas in the Super Regionals. Dates and times for the Super Regionals will be announced Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. CT.
Multiple Herculean efforts on the mound and with the sticks drove the Golden Eagles to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. It all started on the hill in the first game of the day with junior closer Ethan Roberts.
The Sparta, Tenn. native made his first start of the season and just the second of his career with his team with its back to the ropes needing a victory to stay alive. He turned in one of the most inspiring efforts in the program's history.
After tossing 46 pitches in the team's victory over Missouri State to open the Regional, Roberts was unconscious for the Golden Eagles on Monday, using a career-high 107 offerings to complete seven and two thirds innings and earn his sixth victory of the year. He struck out four batters while allowing just six hits and pair of walks.
While the junior did eventually give up four runs in the eighth inning, it was hardly a problem as the Golden Eagles had worked the bats to the tune of 10 runs and 13 hits to that point. The length he was able to provide in the start was astronomical as the night would play out.
Following Roberts departure in the eighth, the Rebels scored three more runs (two of which went to Robert's total on the day) to cut eh Tech lead to 10-5. With the bases loaded and two outs, Bragga turned to senior ace Travis Moths out of the bullpen for the big out. The OVC Pitcher of the Year delivered, needing just three pitches to strikeout Ole Miss' Tim Rowe to end the inning and the threat.
The Tech offense went back to work in the ninth, recapturing the 10-run advantage by hanging a five-spot in the frame. Junior southpaw Andrew O'Dwyer took care of the final three outs, retiring the Rebels in order to clinch win No. 51 for the Golden Eagles.
In the game, senior first baseman Chase Chambers led the way offensively, driving in four runs as part of a 2-for-3 showing with two walks. He also blasted his 17th home run of the year, a three-run bomb that blew the game open to a 7-0 contest in the fifth. John Ham drove in three runs, while Brennon Kaleiwahea, Trevor Putzig and Collin Harris each added a pair of RBI.
It was another grouping of incredible pitching that led the Golden Eagles to the top in the second contest. Sophomore Devin Lancaster was special through five innings, holding the Rebels scoreless and retiring 12 consecutive batters. In the sixth, Ole Miss finally broke through, as Grae Kessinger connected on the first pitch of the frame for a solo home run.
After a fly ball out, Moths was called on out of the bullpen again. Ole Miss gathered back-to-back hits that plated a second run and then loaded the bases on a walk. As he had done all season, Moths came up huge, dialing up a pair of punch outs to exit the frame without any further damage and give the offense a chance.
And the bats did just that. A quick out to the start the sixth brought Chambers to the plate, and the veteran slugger promptly wore one off the elbow pad, drawing a hit-by-pitch to provide a base runner for the likes of Putzig.
In the biggest at bat of his four-year collegiate career, Putzig shined his brightest. On the first pitch, he turned on a breaking ball, blasting a two-run rainbow to left field to tie the game and silence an otherwise raucous crowd of over 10,000. It marked his 17th of the season and the most important of his career.
Junior outfielder Nick Osborne, who was named to the All-OVC Second Team as a utility player showed that prowess, taking over on the hill in the seventh and turning in a zero after a leadoff single. The Tech defense turned a 6-4-3 double play behind the glove work of shortstop David Garza, second baseman John Ham and first baseman Chase Chambers.
In the seventh, it was some small ball that provide the lead for the nation's top offense. Ham drew a leadoff walk and would advance to second on a passed ball. Alex Junior laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line, actually beating it out for a base hit and advancing Ham to third.
After a quick out, junior Kevin Strohschein got into a fastball and powered it down the right field line. The ball would fall short of the fence, but would be plenty long enough for a sacrifice fly to the warning track and a 3-2 Tech lead.
Osborne worked another scoreless frame in the eighth while the Rebels matched the effort by holding the Golden Eagles without a run in the bottom half. In the most intense half inning of baseball in Tennessee Tech history, Osborne and the Golden Eagles finished on top.
In the top of the ninth, the right-hander induced a first-pitch fly ball to center field for out number one. A base hit by Chase Cockrell made things a bit interesting with a single up the middle, but Osborne stayed in the moment, inducing another fly ball out, this time to right field.
Then, one a full count, the junior forced Kessinger into a pop up to Ham at second base. Ham looked the ball into his glove, squeezed and began the celebration, joining his teammates in a sprint towards the mound for the inevitable dogpile.
Tech will learn the details of its Super Regional match-up with Texas on Tuesday morning, with an announcement on the sites to be announced at 7 a.m. CT. Fans looking to purchase tickets and support the Golden Eagles will be able to submit ticket requests to the TTU Ticket Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. CT Tuesday morning. Ticket priority will be determined based on demand.
Golden Eagle fans can make requests in person at the Eblen Center ticket office or over the phone at 931-372-3940 or 931-372-3941.
2018 NCAA OXFORD ALL-REGIONAL TEAM
1B - Chase Chambers, Tennessee Tech
2B - Jacob Adams, Ole Miss
3B - Trevor Putzig, Tennessee Tech
SS - Grae Kessinger, Ole Miss
OF - Will Golsan, Ole Miss
OF - Hunter Steinmentz, Missouri State
OF - Nick Osborne, Tennessee Tech
C - Brennon Kaleiwahea, Tennessee Tech
P - Ryan Rolison, Ole Miss
P - Alex Hursey, Tennessee Tech
DH - Nick Reeser, Saint Louis
MOP - Chase Chambers, Tennessee Tech
Photos by Petre Thomas