By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It took some work, a couple of huge relief appearances and an unlikely power presence, but the Tennessee Tech baseball team (29-9, 16-2) finished off a six-run comeback Saturday afternoon, rallying to defeat Murray State (16-19, 6-9) 14-10 to complete its fifth Ohio Valley Conference series sweep of the season.
The team's 29-9 start to the 2017 campaign marks the best in program history, one game ahead of the 2014 squad and two games ahead of the 2013 team, both of which won a school-record 40 games.
Unlike the first two games in the series, it was the visiting Racers that lit up the scoreboard first, collecting a 4-0 lead in the top of the second inning behind a three-run home run by Ryan Perkins.
After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first, the Golden Eagles refused to come away with nothing in the third, putting two runners on base for sophomore leadoff man Alex Junior. Known for his speed and ability to reach base – and much less for his power (he had just four career home runs coming into the day) – the center fielder ripped a line drive that just cleared the wall in right field, cutting the deficit to one.
Struggling to score through the first two games in the series, Murray State attacked relentlessly, playing three more runs in the top of the third behind another three-run long ball from Perkins. Tech head coach Matt Bragga turned to senior reliever to prevent further damage in the frame, which he achieved with a fielder's choice and a pickoff.
The visitors would tack on two more in the top of the fourth, producing the only chink in Fowler's armor of the day. Brandon Gutzler muscled a 2-2 offering to left field for a two-run shot, providing the Racers with a relatively daunting six-run lead.
The Golden Eagles never wavered, however, chipping away at the lead over the next three innings. In the bottom of the fourth Tech got its first chance, thanks to a two-out double off the bat of junior third baseman Trevor Putzig. The extra base hit set up sophomore slugger Kevin Strohschein for a monster, two-run blast to right center field, the youngster's ninth long ball of the year.
On the flip side Fowler managed to quell the hungry bats of the Racers in the top of the fifth, making quick work of the opposition with a 1-2-3 inning backed by two strikeouts. The pitcher's momentum carried into the dugout and the bottom half, as the Golden Eagles struck again.
Two-out scoring proved frugal again for Tech, as Putzig laced his third triple of the game to left center field to drive in both left fielder Collin Harris and Junior. Harris reached earlier in the frame on a fielder's choice while Junior was plunked one batter before Putzig. The two runs cut the deficit to just 9-7 headed into the sixth.
Once again it was a quick inning of work for Fowler, who needed just 10 pitches to force three easy outs.
Tech then attacked like no other in the bottom of the sixth, sending nine batters to the plate. Junior designated hitter Ryan Flick and junior first baseman Chase Chambers whacked back-to-back doubles to open the frame, needing just three pitches to pull within a single run of the visiting Racers.
Back-to-back ground outs by seniors Chris Brown and Matt Jones knotted things eight, albeit putting the Racers just one out away from getting out of the inning without further damage. The Golden Eagles had other plans.
Junior shortstop David Garza singled to right center field on a full count and was followed by a single through the left side by Harris. Looking to just keep the good juju in Tech's favor, Junior came to the plate and worked a 2-1 count before he saw a pitch he just couldn't resist. He uncorked an absolute bomb that cleared the scoreboard in right field, his second three-run dinger of the game.
Just like that, Tech had its first lead of the game, 12-9, and Junior had his first career multi-home run performance. The Golden Eagles added an insurance run in the frame, as Putzig drew a seven-pitch walk to set up Strohschein for an RBI double down the third base line.
Fowler once again kept Murray State off the scoreboard in the seventh, picking up his third strikeout of the game. Junior reliever Travis Moths took over for Fowler after a leadoff single in the eighth, turning in three straight outs to move on to the bottom half.
Junior gave the Golden Eagles one more run to work with, singling through the right side to drive in Garza, who reached on a wild pitch on a strikeout.
Murray State snagged one run off Moths in the ninth, grabbing a single from Davis Sims after a one-out double by Jack Hranec. Moths rebounded to pick up the second out on strikeout. He then induced a high fly out to Jones down the right field line to mark the end of the Golden Eagle comeback.
Fowler tossed four and two thirds innings during the contest, allowing five hits and just two earned runs while fanning three and surrendering zero walks. His efforts led to his third victory of the year. Moths covered the final two frames, allowing just the two hits and single run while punching out two.
Junior set a career-high mark with a whopping seven RBI on the day, a Tech program record against an OVC opponent. He tallied four hits in five at bats and score three times. Trevor Putzig also finished 4-for-5, scoring twice and driving in two runs. He set a personal-high with three doubles in the contest.
Strohschein recorded three RBI on two hits and Garza completed a 3-for-5 day with three runs scored. Harris also scored three times for the Golden Eagles. As a team, Tech worked out 19 hits with three home runs and eight doubles.
Tech will kick off a brutal part of its schedule on Tuesday, making a trip to Alabama A&M to kick off what will equate to seven of the next eight games on the road. The Golden Eagles will square off with the Bulldogs Apr. 18 at 3 p.m. CT.
Photo by Tony Marable