By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – What began like so many games at Bush Stadium before quickly turned into one of the more incredible displays of pitching in the history of Tennessee Tech baseball Friday evening, as the Golden Eagles (28-9, 15-2) turned in a 6-4 victory over Ohio Valley Conference foe Murray State (16-18, 6-8) behind a record-breaking showing by sophomore Ethan Roberts.
On a night that saw the Tech offense dominate through the first four innings, it was the Golden Eagle closer who made headlines once the contest had reached the end. After entering the game with two outs in the sixth inning, a runner on second and a two-run lead, Roberts went to work.
It took six pitches to close out the sixth, with the right-handed hurler punching out Davis Sims on a swing-and-miss. After starting the seventh with an 0-2 count on the Racer leadoff man, Roberts watched two of four consecutive misses with wonder as Ryan Perkins took a free pass.
The Sparta, Tenn. native dialed in to a level never quite seen from that point on, not throwing another ball the rest of the frame. Roberts punched out Caleb Hicks on four pitches (including one foul ball), set down Jaron Robinson on three attempts and sent Kipp Moore back to the dugout on three more offerings, striking out the side.
He did it again in the eighth, forcing Adam Bauer and Brandon Gutzler into swings and misses before fanning Tyler Lawrence, Murray State's all-time hits leader, looking. That equated to six consecutive strikeouts, and the reliever still wasn't done.
Roberts kicked off the ninth with back-to-back whiffing Ks, needing just seven pitches to clip Jack Hranec and Sims. With just one more batter remaining, the youngster had to really dig deep into his arsenal, requiring eight pitches to get one more chance on a 3-2 count. The ninth and final toss of the at bat proved devastating, as Perkins could do nothing but stand and watch strike three smack the mitt of Tech catcher Chris Brown with a thunderous THWAP.
It represented Robert's ninth consecutive strikeout in the game, a program record. It also meant all 10 outs the closer recorded came via a strikeout, including eight by swings and misses. With three and one third innings of relief with just a single base runner allowed, Roberts earned his 10th save of the season, putting him within two of the program's single-season record of 12 set by Seth Lucio in the 2013 season. It tied for the second most (10), also by Lucio (in 2014).
Senior starter Jake Usher provided the Golden Eagles with a solid showing over the game's first five and two thirds innings, holding a typically potent Racer attack to five hits and four earned runs. The right-hander struck out four batters and walked just one while picking up his third win of the season.
Just like Thursday evening, the Tech bats gave their pitching staff an early 1-0 lead in the first, thanks in large part to a leadoff triple off the bat of sophomore center fielder Alex Junior. On a 3-1 count, junior third baseman Trevor Putzig knocked a long fly ball to right field for a sacrifice fly, driving in Junior for the advantage.
Murray State knotted things at 1-1 in the top of the second, but the Golden Eagles were quick to respond, plating two in the bottom half of the frame. A leadoff walk to junior first baseman Chase Chambers set up senior catcher Chris Brown for an easy RBI, as the switch hitter clubbed a double off the wall in right field to make it 2-1.
Three pitches later, senior second baseman Matt Jones made it a 3-1 Tech advantage, blasting his own RBI double off the wall in dead center field. Brown collected his second RBI double of the contest in the third inning, driving one down the right field line to make it a 4-1 contest.
The Racers cut it to 4-3 in the fourth, but the Golden Eagles answered once again in the bottom half. With two outs and junior shortstop David Garza sitting on first base after a leadoff single to center field, Putzig took a turn at the plate, still looking for his first official at bat. After smacking the sac fly in the first and drawing a walk to start the third, the Tech slugger uncorked a two-run long ball over the right field wall for a 6-3 lead.
The visitors chased Usher from the contest in the sixth after cutting it to a two-run Tech advantage, but unfortunately for the Racer offense, they ran into the buzz saw that was the arm of Roberts.
Putzig led the offense with three RBI on a 1-for-1 day at the plate with two walks. Brown tallied two RBI with two hits in four at bats and Jones marked the other Tech RBI as part of a 2-for-4 showing.
Friday evening marked the second time in his young career that Roberts fanned 10 batters in relief, having accomplished the feat in four innings of work at Belmont last season in a 13-inning victory. He walked none while surrendering five hits and one earned run in the contest, eventually earning the win.
The Golden Eagles will look for their fifth sweep in OVC play this season Saturday afternoon, taking on the Racers in the series finale at 2 p.m. CT at Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex.
Photo by Tony Marable