By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Friday may have been Friday the 13th, but the only date that was scaring the Tennessee Tech softball coming into the doubleheader against Murray State was Feb. 24.
Why that date? The Golden Eagles took a crushing 21-0, five-inning loss to the Racers at the Trojan Classic in Troy, Ala.
And with the Racers coming to Cookeville searching for their first Ohio Valley Conference win of the season and Tech winning three of its last four, the twinbill appeared to be the definition of a trap game.
But with the way Tech was hitting, the Golden Eagles were determined to keep the Racers (10-29, 0-10 OVC) behind the starting gate.
"We tell them that those tournament games are practice," said Tech head coach Bonnie Bynum Graham. "We told them that we'd take that L to Murray State when it doesn't matter, as long as we take care of business when they come to our place, and that's exactly what we did."
Tech took both ends of the doubleheader, taking a 5-1 victory in game one, then won with the home run as Raegan Sparks tied the game, then Taylor Thomas hit a walk-off solo homer in the bottom of the seventh to take a 5-4 victory in the night cap.
The Golden Eagles improve to 14-24 on the season, 5-7 In the Ohio Valley, as well as an impressive 8-2 at the Tech Softball Field.
The numbers for Sparks in the doubleheader are pretty amazing – 4-for-6 with three home runs and six RBI, collecting 13 total bases and a pretty nice 2.167 slugging percentage on the afternoon. Sparks had a stretch of three home runs in four at-bats during the doubleheader, and now leads the team with nine total dingers, a third of the team's total output.
And after a slump in the beginning of league play, the hits couldn't have come at a better time.
"She's starting to see the ball a little bit better now," Graham said. "It just happens that way, as soon as you get hot, sometimes you get cold. She's been working really hard and doing a great job in making adjustments. We're just starting to see the proof in that."
Sparks added, "I wasn't hitting as well as I should have, but I'm coming out of it. All I wanted to do was get base hits. I ended up doing more than that and I certainly wasn't expecting that. That felt great.
"It wasn't anything different I was seeing, it just came at the right time. I put a lot of work in this week and was just getting my mind right through the week and in practice. One of those home runs, she was trying to intentionally walk me and she missed her spots. I just took advantage of that."
Thomas went 3-for-7, her lone RBI coming from the walk-off blast, but took the team lead in batting average, thanks in part to her recent tear.
Taylor Waldrop, who earned Pitcher of the Week nods from both the OVC and the Tennessee Sports Writers Association last week, made her case for a second consecutive honor as she earned the wins in both contests, pitching the complete game in the first, then rallying the Golden Eagles following a good start from Kayla Hughes.
In all, Waldrop worked 8 2/3 innings, allowing one unearned run on nine hits as she walked none and struck out four. Her OVC ERA continues to remain flawless at 0.00.
But that day in February still played a factor.
"It was in our mind a lot," Thomas said. "We knew we had to make our plays and put the bat to the ball. We had to make the adjustments we didn't make last time."
In the first game, Tech led 4-0 before the Racers scored their first run in the sixth, then the Golden Eagles added an insurance run in the home half of the frame.
But the second game started with an ill omen as the Racers struck for four unearned runs in the top of the first as Murray State collected two hits and Tech committed the same number of errors to put the Golden Eagles in jeopardy.
As the game wore on, however, Tech showed its prowess with the long ball as Sparks drilled a solo home run to center field in the fourth, then hit a three-run blast the next inning, driving in Thomas and McGowan, tying the game in the fifth.
Neither team was able to get anything going in the sixth as both squads put their game one starting pitchers back into the circle to prevent any damage.
The Racers threatened in the top of the seventh, leaving runners on second and third.
But it was Thomas who came through with a one-out blast on a 1-0 count that left the fans heading to the parking lot.
For a freshman, that was an upperclassman hit.
"Absolutely," Graham said. "Taylor has just been hitting great these last few weeks. She's really starting to see the ball and coming into her own right now."
Thomas, humbly, said she was just trying to do her job.
"I was just trying to get on base and pass the hitting stick on down," she said. "But I hit a home run and it just felt so good. There was such a rush because we felt so uptight about the game. Making it all seem so easy was a much bigger accomplishment than hitting that home run."
With winning five of their last six conference matchups, the Golden Eagles seem to have erased the memory of its 0-6 start to league play as they start its push for a postseason bid.
"At first, we were feeling pretty skeptical," Sparks said. "We didn't know if it was going to happen, but we just started going with the flow. Then we finally pushed through and got some wins. That's what we wanted."
Thomas added, "Everybody's trying to work out those last little glitches they have. "Whether there's something wrong with their swing or they're not seeing the ball, everybody's just trying to make those little fixes. Each game is a learning experience, so that's just helping us prepare."
Tech returns to action on Wednesday as the Golden Eagles host Lipscomb at 5 p.m. in a non-conference showdown. In league play, Tech travels to Eastern Illinois and SIUE next Saturday and Sunday.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information