Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor
When your back is against the wall, there’s only a couple options left on the table. Option one – stay pinned against the wall, and let the opposition run away with it. Option two – kick the wall down, and fight your way back into the competition.
Throughout this season and this past weekend in Auburn, Ala. the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (6-10) have chosen option two more times than not. That mindset showed in their 2-1 series win over the Auburn Tigers (13-4).
“I think we’ve learned a little bit about ourselves,” Middle Tennessee head coach Jim Toman said. “You get knocked down, you either get up or give in. These guys have not given in. I’m just proud of them for playing extremely hard.”
Coming into the weekend series with Auburn , the Blue Raiders had lost four of their last five, including a series sweep by the South Alabama Jaguars. It’s inevitable that the Tigers didn’t give Middle Tennessee a second look before the series. However, the “boys in blue” sunk their cleats in the box and swung for the fences.
Game one of the three-game series on Friday was an absolute slugfest with both teams knocking double-digit hit totals. Middle Tennessee jumped out to an 8-3 lead after two innings due to multiple two-out hits that brought runners across to score. The fireworks slowly fizzled out after an eventful first two innings, leading to a 10-8 Blue Raiders victory after Auburn made a push in the ninth inning.
Nathan Sanders was outstanding at the plate on Friday. He went 3-4 with three RBIs and a home run to notch one of his best hitting performances on the season. Left-hander Trent Seibert was credited with the win after pitching 4.0 scoreless innings in relief for Zach Keenan. Seibert allowed only two hits with three strikeouts in his stint.
Game two was set for Saturday in Plainsman Park, but a freeze warning across the area forced the teams to play a doubleheader on Sunday.
Game one of the doubleheader was as hit-packed as the first game of the series as both teams totaled 12 hits in the contest. Auburn eventually held on for a 10-7 victory, but not without a fight from the Blue Raiders.
After seven runs in the first inning and three in the third from the Tigers, Middle Tennessee faced a 10-run deficit early, but they didn’t count themselves out. Mason Speirs stepped to the plate in the fourth inning with JT Mabry on base, and let it fly over the fence. Speirs singled later on in the sixth, but it was Nathan Sanders that sent the ball flying to the Blue Raiders’ bullpen for the second time on the weekend to score Speirs. Sanders also hit an RBI single in the seventh inning to cut the lead to four. Middle Tennessee’s scoring came to a halt after Jackson Galloway smashed a fastball over the big green wall of Plainsman Park in the eighth.
“We were really one swing from tying it up, and we outhit them,” Toman said. “We got off to a bad start. That happens sometimes playing against a good hitting team. I’m proud of the guys for fighting back.”
The Blue Raiders held Auburn scoreless from the third inning on with help from a couple young faces in the bullpen. Freshman Jalen Wirtz and Sophomore Dustin Sprong combined for 5.1 scoreless innings while only allowing only one hit with five strikeouts. Both relievers only had 1.0 inning under their belt coming into the weekend.
“That was the first time they’ve had a chance to get on the mound on the road, against a good team,” Toman said. “Coach (Jerry) Meyers is a really good pitching coach, and they have been working hard. He told me that they had been doing well in the bullpen. When they do well during practice, we look to give them an opportunity. We might have found two relievers today.”
Due to a couple injuries and the Blue Raiders causing some chaos at the plate, Auburn was forced to use eight arms in the first game which limited their bullpen for the second matchup. That plus the Blue Raiders’ momentum played a large part in their series-securing 4-3 victory over the Tigers in the game set for seven innings.
Auburn jumped out to another quick lead in the doubleheader finale by scoring three runs in the second inning on five singles. Sophomore Jaden Hamm ended the rally with two consecutive strikeouts. Hamm finished with 3.2 innings pitched, six hits, three earned runs, two walks and two strikeouts for Middle Tennessee.
Left-handed veteran Peyton Wigginton finished out the rest of the game with 4.1 scoreless innings. He allowed only three hits while adding three strikeouts, bringing his team-leading total to 23 Ks on the year. Wigginton has yet to allow a walk through 26.0 innings.
The Blue Raiders’ bullpen has been consistent the majority of the season, but their production at the plate hasn’t been as strong throughout this season. That changed this weekend as they totaled 30 hits and 21 runs over the three-game series.
“We haven’t swung it very well to start the year, but they’re working really hard at practice,” Toman said. “They’re building their confidence up, and we’ve seen a lot of arms this year. Playing a good schedule early on, I think we’ll be ready for conference play having seen some good pitching.”
Playing a key role in the box was veteran catcher Mason Speirs. In the doubleheader alone, Speirs was 5-9 at the dish with three RBIs and a home run knock in the first game. His efforts moved him to a team-leading batting average of .394.
Playing well and winning is sweet. Playing for something bigger than yourself while being successful is sweeter.
“We recently had an unfortunate event with Briggs Rutters’ mom passing away, so we were all playing for her this weekend. I think we were all playing harder for her,” Speirs said. “It was a really good team win this weekend.”
The Blue Raiders’ scoring in the finale started in the fourth inning when Speirs knocked an RBI double to bring JT Mabry across for their first run of the game. Tatsunori Negishi ended the big inning for Middle Tennessee with a two-run double to tie the game up at three runs apiece.
The next few innings were quiet which led to an extra innings finish between the two teams. Shortstop Fausto Lopez doubled to start the eighth inning off strong. A Brett Coker walk and Speirs single loaded the bases for the Blue Raiders with only one out. One batter later, Sanders was walked for his fourth consecutive at-bat bringing Lopez home for the potential game-winning run.
Wigginton put an end to the Tigers in the bottom of the eighth, allowing only one hit.
The two victories over the weekend gave Middle Tennessee a total of three wins over Power Five teams this season, having defeated Illinois earlier in the season. It was the first time the Blue Raiders beat an SEC team since April 3, 2018 when they defeated Vanderbilt 4-3.
“It’s huge. We haven’t been playing great. We’ve played solid in all three aspects, but we haven’t put it all together,” Toman said. “If we play the game the right way, we’re pretty good. We got some guys that aren’t gonna quit.”
Before conference play starts this coming weekend against Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee will welcome Austin Peay State University to Reese Smith Jr. Field on Tuesday with first pitch set for 6 p.m.
“We came in here and beat an SEC team, and we were competitive in all three games,” Speirs said. “It helps us remember who we are. It definitely gives us a boost of confidence going into conference play.”