Photo by Delaney Dickey / MTSU Sidelines
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-18, 8-9) battled the Florida Atlantic Owls (23-23, 10-7) on Saturday for an intense doubleheader. Middle Tennessee has entered the final stretch of the season and each matchup becomes more vital heading into the conference tournament.
When all was said and done, the Blue Raiders split Saturday’s doubleheader with the Owls and will play again on Sunday to cap off the weekend series.
Cori Jennings started in the circle for the Blue Raiders and had a stellar pitching performance, but the defense was unable to back her up. The Blue Raiders tallied three errors early in the game, but were able to overcome the mistakes to win game one by a score of 6-1.
Claire Smith got the offense started for the Blue Raiders. She connected on a base hit into left field for a double, reaching scoring position. However, the Blue Raiders were unable to bring Smith home and the Owls closed out the inning with no runs allowed.
Middle Tennessee continued to put runners on base and were able to capitalize in the bottom of the third inning. Morgan Harris brought in Keely McGee with a huge base hit to center field. Lexi Cushing followed Harris and kept the momentum going with a base hit of her own down the left-field line, bringing in two more runners to put the Blue Raiders up 3-0.
“Offensive performace was good,” said Head Coach Jeff Breeden. “We got the short game going and then some long stuff. We ran the bases well and had some hit-and-runs. Our steals came up big for us.”
McGee crushed a monster double to the fence in the bottom of the fourth to continue to offensive onslaught. Deja Portillo made her way around the bases from McGee’s hit to push the Blue Raiders lead to 4-0.
The Owls didn’t put a run on the board until the fifth inning, but the Blue Raiders responded defensively to quickly close out the inning. The MTSU offense picked up where they left off in the fifth, as Kirstyn Cuccia tallied two RBIs with a lucky bounce to center field.
The Blue Raiders made quick work of the Owls defensively in the final two innings. Smith made an incredible stop to prevent a base hit and Jennings closed out the sixth. Summer Burgess capped off the game one victory with the final out to seal the 6-1 victory.
The second game between the Owls and Blue Raiders was a defensive stand-still until the end of the game.
Jennings continued her pitching marathon into the second game until the top of the sixth inning. There were only two hits between the two squads in the first five innings. Jennings fatigue began to settle in after the fifth and Breeden went to his bullpen.
“We don’t know what the weather is going to do tomorrow, so we were going to try and throw her twice today and get two wins today,” Breeden said. “I thought she pitched great in both games. She didn’t give up many hits or runs at all.”
The Blue Raiders struck first offensively again and it appeared to be more of the same from the first game for Middle Tennessee. However, FAU would not go quietly. The Owls kept it within reach and were only one run down going into the bottom of the sixth.
Cushing hammered her 12th home run of the season in the bottom of the sixth to give her the single-season record in Blue Raider history.
“It obviously felt great, I felt it right off the bat,” Cushing said. “I knew it was way gone.”
“She’s had a great season, she’s really matured as a hitter,” Breeden said. “I think the sky’s the limit for her.”
The Owls had other plans in mind for the Blue Raiders to prevent sealing the second victory of the day. FAU rallied in the top of the seventh and the Blue Raiders committed too many errors to give up the lead.
“(We) just have to take a little pride in playing defense,” Breeden said. “We have to be strong, catch the ball, make outs and we didn’t do that. Hopefully we learned a lesson.”
The Owls went up 4-3 on the Blue Raiders and Middle Tennessee was unable to respond in the bottom of the seventh. The Owls sealed the victory in the clutch and split the double-header with the Blue Raiders.
“I think that we beat them in every way except for the last inning,” Cushing said. “We gave it to them.”
The Blue Raiders will return tomorrow to finish the weekend series against the Owls. It will be a critical conference game for Middle Tennessee heading into the conference tournament.
“I think we’ll come back firing,” Cushing said.
First pitch is set for 12 p.m. on Sunday afternoon
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