By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A thrilling battle to the very end, the Tennessee Tech baseball team came out victorious over in-state foe Tennessee Wednesday evening, extending the nation's longest winning streak to 26 games with a 7-6 victory at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Golden Eagles (35-5) took the lead and never looked back, using clutch at bats and timely pitching and defense to defeat the Volunteers (24-19) for the first time since 2012 and just 10th time in Knoxville.
Junior Nick Osborne was a one-man wrecking crew on the night, finishing a whopping 5-for-5 with a pair of home runs, four RBI and three runs scored. Leading late, Tech turned to junior closer Ethan Roberts for the final two and two thirds innings. The Sparta native picked up his 10th save of the season to clinch the Golden Eagle victory.
Tech plated the first run of the contest in the top of the second, putting together a two-out rally with three straight singles from Osborne, Brennon Kaleiwahea and Collin Harris. It was the left fielder, Harris, that earned the RBI, ripping a base knock through the right side to drive in Osborne.
"I think it starts in our dugout with our energy," Osborne said when asked bout the potency of the lineup. "We bring a lot of energy and pick each other up. We have positivity and a next-man-up mentality. If someone makes an out, somebody else steps in and tries to the get the inning started. If someone gets on, it's move him over, get him in. That's pretty much our mentality."
A scary moment in the second inning seemed to pull the Tech squad together and invoke a renewed vigor amongst the players. After completing a scoreless first inning, sophomore hurler Nic Dye took to the hill for the second frame, tossing two pitches to the leadoff batter, Brodie Leftridge, before being removed from the contest due to an undisclosed injury.
Senior reliever Colton Provey warmed up quickly to take over for the Golden Eagles, pitching around a double and two walks to keep the Golden Eagle lead intact. In the fourth, Osborne put the Tech offense on his back, making it a 3-0 lead after hammering a two-run blast to left field on the second pitch he saw.
The Vols answered with two runs of their own in the bottom half of the frame, but Tech held strong. Returning the favor in the fifth, junior John Ham lifted an RBI double to right center field to drive in Kevin Strohschein for a 4-2 advantage.
Two batters later, Osborne struck again. A native of Sevierville, just 30 minutes northwest of the UT campus, the right fielder uncorked on a 1-2 offering for his second two-run long ball of the contest to open up a 6-2 lead. It represented his eighth dinger of the season.
Again, Tennessee responded on the scoreboard with a pair of runs, but the Tech pitching staff would delay any further damage until later in the contest. An insurance run in the top of the sixth courtesy of senior Chase Chambers made it a 7-4 contest heading into the bottom of the seventh inning after Seth Noel tossed a scoreless sixth.
Noel would record the first out following the seventh-inning stretch before walking the next batter and prompting head coach Matt Bragga to make the call to the bullpen for Roberts. In a shocking turn of events, the right-hander had barely set foot on the mound before Vols center fielder Zach Daniels took a chunk out of the Tech lead.
Having subbed in in the fourth inning on defense, Daniels took the first pitch by Roberts deep to right field for a stunning two-run home run that clipped the Tech advantage to one run.
Never fazed, however, the all-time saves leader in Golden Eagle history calmly went about his business, forcing a ground ball for the second out of the frame and striking out Nico Mascia for the third.
Roberts worked three-up and three-down in the eighth, inducing a ground ball to second base, pop up to shortstop and fly ball to center field. A leadoff ground out to third kicked off the ninth, with the junior in complete command of the zone.
And then, an inside pitch just barely clipped Andre Lipcius, putting the tying run on first with still two outs to go. Roberts again paid no mind to the pressure, staying in the moment to force a fly ball out to Alex Junior in center field. He finalized the Tech victory with four more pitches, striking out Zach Daniels for his 25th career save.
Roberts became the first Golden Eagle pitcher ever to earn saves over both Tennessee and Vanderbilt in their career.
The victory marked the 26th in-a-row for the Golden Eagles, extending their program and Ohio Valley Conference records, as well as the longest streak in the nation.
"It sounds so simple, but the guys have really never gotten too high or too low," Bragga said when asked about the success in close games during the streak. "They're a resilient bunch. They just keep fighting. It's a veteran group with great leadership. These young men are great guys, great teammates to one another and they love each other. We're fortunate enough to have them.
"We understand that baseball is what baseball is. You go play the best you can and at the end of the day, hope that you are on the winning end of the scoreboard. But it happens. Sometimes you lose. The Indians had a 22-game winning streak last year. So it happens. But it's not something we talk about. We just go out and play the best we can. And we believe, because we're a good baseball team, that we have a chance to win every game we play."
""It comes up in normal conversation," senior first baseman Chase Chambers added, "but we're not like 'oh, we've won 26 games in-a-row, we've got to win the next one.' For us it's the process; coming in every day, getting ready to play and expecting to win. This is baseball. We're not going to win every game, but we come in expecting to win and just trust the process."
The Golden Eagles will return to Cookeville for a three-game, weekend series against league rival Southeast Missouri. Game one is set for a 6 p.m. CT first pitch on Friday with games on Saturday and Sunday scheduled for 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. starts, respectively.
Photo by Thomas Corhern