By T. Scott Boatright
The mantra for the Louisiana Tech baseball team this season has been “Pump It Up,” the Endor song that has fired up both the Bulldogs and their fans all season long.
But instead of “pumping things up,” LA Tech used some late dynamite to blow up its NCAA Regional opener against Rider.
Louisiana Tech plated nine runs in the bottom of the eighth inning as Hunter Wells’ grand slam provided the spark as the top-seeded Bulldogs ended up blowing out fourth-seeded Rider in front of 2,634 raucous fans at sold out J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park.
Tech advanced to a winner’s bracket game on Saturday when the Bulldogs take on second-seeded North Carolina State, which defeated Alabama 8-1 earlier on Friday.
The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack will meet in a winner’s bracket game at 6 p.m. today.
The significance of getting an opening game win in the only Regional Tournament the Bulldogs have ever hosted wasn’t lost on head coach Lane Burroughs after it was all over.
“It’s extremely important,” Burroughs said of winning the Regional opener. “You get in a loser’s bracket in a Regional and it’s going to be tough because the tournament is condensed. You get in a loser’s bracket in a conference tournament and it’s a long tournament.
But this is a three-day tournament, maybe four. And if you get in that loser’s bracket, especially after Game One, it’s tough sledding. It’s going to be hard to navigate, especially with the numbers in the bullpen. It was ultra-important to get this win and get in the winner’s bracket.
“Obviously we’re playing a tremendous team tomorrow. (North Carolina State) is very athletic. They’re very good and put on a show today offensively. They got to the championship game of a conference tournament in a great league (ACC), so we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Wells was undeniably the hero of the night for the Bulldogs as he became LA Tech’s tied the record for the program’s all-time career hits in his first at bat — a two-run home run in the first inning — before becoming Tech’s all-time hits leader in his second at bat, a two-run double.
Before the smoke from Wells’ dynamite night had cleared he had posted a 4-of-5 performance at the plate with nine RBIs, setting another program record with that mark with two home runs and two doubles.
“It was amazing,” Burroughs said of Wells’ performance. “I just don’t want it to get lost that he broke the career hits record three years. When you put that into perspective it’s even more amazing. He’s the hit king of Louisiana Tech. He comes in two years ago and breaks the single season record and how he’s the all-time hitter here. What a night — nine RBIs — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that to be honest. Especially at this point of the game when you’re in the postseason. You’re not playing any bad teams right now.”
Wells said his personal performance wasn’t his focus heading into the contest. He was only looking for a win.
“It was just another game,” Wells said. “That’s how we looked at it. There’s 64 left and we want to be the last standing. There was absolutely no pressure going into this game. We were loose and I felt like we’re dangerous. We’re ready at any moment to just get it. And that’s just kind of the vibe on the team.”
The Bulldogs plated multiple runs in four different innings to take down the Broncs. Wells’ two-run blast and an RBI single from Manny Garcia put Tech on top 3-0 after only one inning of play.
An RBI single by Cole McConnell in the fourth, another RBI double from Wells in the fifth and a two-run dinger by senior Parker Bates made it 9-0 Bulldogs after five innings of play at the Love Shack.
But Tech still had that dynamite waiting in bottom of the eighth inning, especially after Rider scored its only two runs in the seventh.
Three straight walks to load the bases gave the Bulldogs a pretty big fuse to work with, and a fielding error by the Broncos pushed across a pair of runs to push Tech’s lead to 11-2.
A two-RBI single from Philip Matulia, who extended his reached-base streak to 20 games, pushed the Bulldogs’ advantage to 13-2 and a RBI single by shortstop Alex Ray pushed the lead to 14-2 before Wells emptied the bases with his second grand slam of the season.
“It’s a fantastic feeling when the crowd is behind you and everyone is cheering,” Wells said. “Everyone’s telling me about this record and it’s all I hear about and just to get that out of the way and to go out and get the ‘W’ tonight is just fantastic. There’s no greater feeling. When I hit a home run, there’s no greater feeling for me. That’s the pinnacle. I don’t know how to describe it other than being just a fantastic feeling.”
But while Wells basked in the spotlight, it was a blue-collar pitching effort from Tech starter Jonathan Fincher that played just as big a role in the Bulldogs’ win.
Fincher earned his eighth pitching victory of the season after going eight innings while allowing only six hits and one walk. He struck out four Broncs batters and didn’t allow a run to cross home plate until Rider plated its pair of runs in the seventh after working himself out of jams that could have ended up in more runs scored against Tech in the fourth and the seventh in which they only gave up two.
“We would have sent him back out there (to finish the ninth),” Burroughs said of Fincher. “He was kind of wavering there in the seventh and I told him, ‘You’re going back out. You’re our ace and you’re going to pitch.’ And he answered the bell. Obviously we scored the nine runs (in the bottom of the eighth inning). The layoff was too long. So we went with Tanner Knight (to pitch the ninth), and I thought he was really good, too. But it was huge for (Fincher) to pitch eight (innings) so we didn’t have to get deep into our bullpen.”
Tech’s 18 runs scored is its highest number of runs in an NCAA Regional game in program history. The nine-run eighth inning also surpasses a new top tally for runs scored in an inning in NCAA postseason play.