By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Miss. – For the second time in as many years, the No. 20 Tennessee Tech baseball team (49-9) claimed victory in its NCAA Tournament opener, kicking off action (albeit delayed 22 hours due to inclement weather and field conditions) in the Oxford Regional with a 6-4 win over No. 3 seeded Missouri State (39-16).
Much like the Tallahassee Regional in 2017, when the Golden Eagles broke a 1-1 tie in the ninth to win 3-1, Tech one again used late offense to pull ahead and claim victory. Knotted at 4-4 in the eighth, the Golden Eagles would plate the go-ahead runs without the benefit of a hit.
The middle infield of Tech, second baseman John Ham and shortstop David Garza, drew back-to-back walks to lead off the frame, with Garza flashing bunt the majority of his five-pitch at bat. Missouri State's Jake Fromson recorded a quick out following the team's second pitching change of the game, brining senior catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea to the dish.
He immediately laid down a sacrifice bunt to the pitcher, who took a look at Ham extended off third before turning around to make the throw to first base. Ham immediately broke for home plate, and, at the same time, Fromson threw the ball down to the second baseman covering at first. The throw sailed wide and into right field, however, allowing not only Ham to cross safely, but also Garza.
"We were cruising, up four to nothing, and Mo (Travis Moths) was cruising on the bump," head coach Matt Bragga said. "And all of a sudden, the wheels came off a little bit. For our guys to battle back and win, we got out of a man on second with no one out in the seventh and the guy did not score. The guys fought hard and I am proud of them."
Having already entered the contest in the sixth, junior closer Ethan Roberts took his chance at closing out the contest in the ninth. He made it look easy, striking out the side to earn his fifth victory of the season.
The vaunted Tech offense was alive and active early, jumping out to a four-run advantage over the first five frames. The scoring began in the second, with Ham leading off the frame with a double to left field. A single by Garza ended up providing the first run, as Ham would advance to third and then head home after the Bears' center fielder mishandled the ball.
Another single, this one from Nick Osborne, sent Garza to third, allowing for the second run of the inning to score with the next at bat. Kaleiwahea crushed a 1-0 offering to right center field, a ball caught by the right fielder for a sacrifice fly and 2-0 lead.
In the third, it was senior Chase Chambers providing the offense. The slugging first baseman hammered a solo blast to right field to lead off the frame, his 16th long ball of the season and team's 129th of the year. It also represented his 77th RBI of the season, breaking the Golden Eagle program's single-season record of 76 set by Brandon Thomasson back in 2014.
Tech added another marker in the fifth, this one off the bat of Ham. Chambers drew a one-out walk on five pitches, and then advance to second on a wild pitch. Two offerings later, Ham laced a single down the third-base line, driving in Chambers for the 4-0 lead.
Senior hurler Travis Moths was brilliant early, facing the minimum through the first five innings while allowing just one hit over that span. He gathered two outs in the sixth before being lifted for Roberts following a bases-loaded walk.
After the walk, Missouri State's Ben Whetstone flared a single to shallow center field, plating two to pull within one. The Bears then tied things at 4-4 on a wild pitch, hitting the reset button on the game.
Roberts shoved from that point on, covering the final three and one third innings with just three hits allowed, no walks and whopping seven strikeouts. Moths took the no-decision, finishing five and two thirds innings while allowing just two hits, two walks and four runs. He punched out eight MSU batters in the contest as well, giving him 101 on the year to make him just the fourth Golden Eagle ever to tally triple digits in strikeouts in a single season.
The two hurlers combined for 15 strikeouts, pitching well and showing just want Bragga wanted from his pitching staff.
"It is valuable to have, and he has been doing it all year," Bragga said of Robert's performance out of the bullpen. "It really sets the tone for the weekend. These two guys are animals and we are lucky to have them."
The Golden Eagles will face off against the winner between No. 1 seeded Ole Miss and No. 4 seeded Saint Louis tomorrow at 4 p.m. CT at Swayze Field with a berth to the regional's championship game on the line.
Photo by Tony Marable