Louisiana Tech’s comeback in the ninth inning Thursday wasn’t too late. It was just a little too little.
Trailing 7-1, the Bulldogs scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth, and the final two outs were a line drive to the wall in left off the bat of Walker Burchfield and a moon ball to the wall in right from Brody Drost.
When those were caught, Tech had lost, 7-6, to Middle Tennessee on the second day of play in the 2023 Conference USA Baseball Championship at Reckling Park on the campus of Rice University.
Tech will play Charlotte Friday at 2 p.m. in an elimination game. The Bulldogs beat Charlotte, 13-8, in the tournament opener Wednesday.
The Blue Raiders earned its spot against Tech by beating No. 2-seed UTSA, 5-1, Wednesday, and Charlotte eliminated the Roadrunners by beating them, 11-2, in Thursday’s opener and first elimination game.
The Bulldogs are 28-30; Charlotte is 30-26. The two teams have split four games this season.
In the Tech-MTSU 12:30 p.m. game under sunny skies Thursday, once Tech had climbed to within a run on a two-run ground-rule double by Dalton Davis and a three-run homer by Ethan Bates, the shots by Burchfield and Drost provided the dramatic but disappointing ending.
“I don’t know how those balls didn’t get out,” Tech coach Lane Burroughs said. “We really crushed some balls early and had nothing to show for it. The one run (through eight innings) will look like we didn’t get a lot done, but I thought we had some pretty good at-bats … we just couldn’t get the big hit. But give our hitters some credit; we never stopped. Those last two balls (to the wall), we get just a little more of either one and we win the ballgame.”
Tech starter Ryan Harland gave up two runs in the first on a leadoff single, walk, a one-out double and a fielder’s choice. The sophomore lefty, starting for just the third time this season and making his 29th appearance, left after 21 pitches with a runner on second and one out in the second inning.
Greg Martinez came out of the pen to relieve him and retired five straight batters but, because of a blister on his right hand, was unable to complete his warmup tosses to start the fifth. Enter Reed Smith, the winner in Wednesday’s opener after throwing only three pitches in Tech’s 13-8 decision over Charlotte. In three innings of work Thursday, Smith gave up just one run when the Blue Raiders made it 3-0 in the fourth as they took advantage of a two-out walk, a single and an error.
The Bulldogs got on the board when Burchfield, Tech’s senior designated hitter batting cleanup with First Team C-USA catcher Jorge Corona sidelined with an injury, led off the bottom of the fourth with his sixth homer of the season and his second of the tournament to make it 3-1.
The Raiders added a run in the eighth on a leadoff home run by Briggs Rutter off Tanner Knight, Tech’s fourth pitcher of the day, to make it 4-1. Lefty sophomore Caden Copeland relieved with a runner on first and no outs; Middle managed two more runs for a 6-1 lead, each run coming on a two-out triple by Brett Coker, a liner that just eluded a diving Drost in center. The triple came immediately after a call of out at first was reversed, the back half of a potential double play that would have ended the inning.
The Raiders added a run off no hits – a hit batter, error, walk and fielder’s choice – in the top of the ninth for a 7-1 lead.
Jaden Hamm, normally a MTSU starter and the team’s leader in strikeouts (90 with 35 walks), pitched the final three innings, more than any of the other three Raider pitchers on the afternoon, and set the Dogs down in order in the seventh and eighth.
Then came the ninth.
Tech loaded the bases in bottom of the ninth with two walks and a pinch-hit single from Baylor Cobb, his first hit of the season. That brought up Davis, Tech’s leadoff guy and hottest hitter, who slammed a ground rule double to make it 7-3, still with no outs and runners on second and third.
Bates followed with a no-doubt three-run home run to right to cut the lead to 7-6.
Then came three flyouts, the final two at the wall, and the game was over.
The Bulldogs left a pair of runners on base in the first, fifth, and sixth.