Saturday, February 4, 2023

Keenan Shines, Blue Raiders Bombard Hilltoppers with Hits


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Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Tensions, emotions, and energy are almost always running high when a conference rival trots into town, and the Blue Raiders were firing on all cylinders on their way to a 10-2 victory over Western Kentucky (9-16, 1-6 C-USA) to start the weekend series off with a bang. 

It didn’t take long for Middle Tennessee (12-13, 4-3 C-USA) to find their footing in the batter’s box on Friday night. Brycen Thomas got the fireworks started in the second inning with a two-run bomb after Tatsunori Negishi was walked. Thomas finished 3-for-3 at the plate with two RBIs. 

One inning later, a Mason Speirs single was followed up by a home run shot from Jackson Galloway that undoubtedly landed on the concourse of Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium. But that wasn’t all. Three at-bats later, Nathan Sanders decided he wanted to join the home run party with a three-run blast to right field, giving the Blue Raiders a 7-0 lead. The final three Blue Raider runs were spread out over the course of the next five innings. 

Blue Raiders celebrate with Nathan Sanders after his three-run blast. (Will Carter / Sports Editor)

Between Negishi, Thomas, and Sanders, the 6-7-8 portion of the lineup produced seven hits on 10 at-bats with seven total RBIs. 

“They were throwing off-speed to us all night, so a lot of us were sitting back on them,” Sanders said. “That’s why we had three home runs. That’s our biggest rival, so it feels great to get the weekend started off that way.”

Sanders also produced a web gem worthy catch in the fourth inning by robbing a Hilltoppers’ home run at the centerfield wall. The snag helped starting pitcher Zach Keenan keep his scoreless performance alive. 

“It was way up there, and I kind of lost it in the darkness,” Sanders said. “I jumped up and looked, and I had it in my glove. Honestly, at first I didn’t know I had it.”

Keenan was appreciative of the effort from his teammate. 

“He saves me so many times. I told Nate (Sanders) earlier, ‘dude, every time I go deep in a game, you have a web gem for me.’”

Keenan’s performance on the mound is what put the Blue Raiders in position to make some noise. Coming off a scoreless outing where he struck out 11 batters against UAB last Friday, he didn’t skip a beat. Keenan tossed seven scoreless innings against the Hilltoppers with five total strikeouts while allowing only five hits. 

“ODU wasn’t the best start here, and it was a home start,” Keenan said. “I was pretty disappointed, so that was kind of a chip on my shoulder. I told myself, ‘I don’t care who I’m facing, I’m not pitching bad two home games in a row.’”

With his performance, he moved up one spot on Middle Tennessee’s all-time strikeout list to eighth with 223 total strikeouts, only three away from passing his own teammate, Peyton Wigginton. 

Zach Keenan fires an off-speed pitch into the strike zone against Western Kentucky. (Will Carter / Sports Editor)

“When that list came out, me and Wiggy didn’t realize we were that high on the list because we’re not huge strikeout pitchers,” Keenan said. We make hitters hit tough pitches. We’re just going to keep doing our thing because we can only go up at this point.”

Blue Raider head coach Jim Toman jokingly mentioned Keenan’s long tenure in Middle Tennessee when complimenting his career postgame. 

“Well, he’s 32 years old. The guy has been here forever, so he should be on the top list. I’m happy for him. He might get a chance to pitch a little professionally, hopefully. He’s the guy the pitchers look up to and works really hard, and when you do that you usually get rewarded in this game. It couldn’t happen to a better kid.”

From Keenan’s performance to scoring 10 runs on 15 hits offensively and finishing with no errors in the game, the victory over Western Kentucky was one of the most complete games Middle Tennessee has played. 

A win in tomorrow’s game would boost the Blue Raiders to an overall winning percentage of .500 and a winning record in C-USA regardless of Sunday’s result. That’s the focus for Toman and his team. 

“The guys had a lot of energy today when they got here and felt like they were gonna play well,” Toman said. “It really helps when your Friday guy gives you that type of performance, but it’s not finished yet. We told the guys we weren’t going to let up. We have to try to win the series tomorrow.”

Middle Tennessee will look to do just that tomorrow at 3 p.m. as they take the field against Western Kentucky for the second game of the three-game series.

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