MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee baseball team (7-6) battled back from three different deficits before taking the lead for good with four runs in the eighth inning, including two on sophomore Charley Thurber’s third home run of the season, in an 8-6 victory over Middle Tennessee State (8-4) Wednesday night at Reese Smith, Jr. Field in Murfreesboro. The Volunteers rode the arm of senior Steve Crnkovich who picked up his second win in four days with five strong innings of relief.
“We battled really well today,” UT Head Coach Todd Raleigh said. “Every time they got up on us, we were able to answer the bell. In a weird way, I thought this was our best game of the year, just because of how we kept responding.
“Yesterday was a tough one to take, but those things happen and I thought we’ve been more productive offensively over the last few days than we have been over the past few weeks. We did a great job running the bases and getting some timely hits, so I really feel like this is something that can get us going a little bit. We’re really just starting to figure out our personal identity as a team and I’m really proud of the guys tonight.”
A native of Downer’s Grove, Ill., Crnkovich allowed just two runs on three hits while striking out two and not walking a batter. He came on in relief for starter Rob Catapano who also threw well in his second start since Sunday. The junior southpaw gave up four runs, three earned, on six hits in four innings of work with a pair of punch-outs.
“Steve is probably the most rubber-armed person on our team, so I felt pretty comfortable putting him out there,” Raleigh said. “Rob wasn’t really himself today, but I thought he battled and gutted it out for us. We asked both of those guys to do something we normally wouldn’t ask them to do, but they really responded to the challenge and pitched well.”
With the Orange and White trailing 5-4 heading into the eighth, Thurber came through with a clutch two-run home run well over the wall in right-center just to the left of the scoreboard to give UT a lead it would not relinquish. He knocked in senior Matt Hamaker who reached on MTSU’s only error of the game.
“I thought that Charley’s home run really turned the game around,” Raleigh said. “It definitely gave us a jolt and gave us a lot more confidence at the plate. Hopefully, we’ll be able to carry that over into our games this weekend.”
Junior P.J. Polk and sophomore Zach Osborne also stood out on the box score for the Big Orange as both recorded two-hit nights. Osborne ripped a pair of doubles and scored three runs, while Polk added one run and two stolen bases. Junior Cody Hawn also picked up a pair of RBIs for the Vols, finishing 1-for-4 with an RBI single and his second sacrifice fly in as many days.
Following Thurber’s home run in the eighth, Tennessee continued to add to its lead with another pair of runs. Although Blue Raider left fielder Will Skinner made a nice sliding grab on a foul ball by UT freshman Chris Fritts for the first out, junior Matt Duffy followed with a seeing-eye single through the left side before Osborne moved him to third with a hard-hit double off the top of the left-field wall. A wild pitch by MTSU pitcher Hunter Dawson brought Duffy home to score and Polk plated Osborne with a high-chopper that bounced over the drawn-in infield for a single.
Crnkovich proceeded to limit the Blue Raiders to just one run in the eighth before sitting them down in order in the ninth to earn the victory. His only two strikeouts of the night came against the final two batters of the game as he dropped a 2-2 curveball on the outside corner for a called third strike to Robert Lawrence and got Tyler Burnett swinging to end the contest.
The two teams opened the scoring by trading runs in the first inning, with MTSU tallying its run on preseason All-American Bryce Brentz’ first home run of the game after the Big Orange manufactured a run in its portion of the frame. Polk got the ball rolling for UT with a leadoff walk and quickly moved up to second with his team-high seventh stolen base of the year. Although Blue Raider starter Hunter Adkins caught junior Khayyan Norfork looking for the first out, Hawn followed with a hard shot to the right side of the infield. Middle Tennessee second baseman Justin Miller was unable to come up with the ball and it rolled into right for a single, scoring Polk from second.
The Blue Raiders scored once more in the third and twice in the fourth to take a 4-1 lead on the Vols. The third-inning tally came on Brentz’ second solo shot, while a lead-off home run by Will Skinner, a single and a couple of UT errors accounted for the runs in the fourth.
Tennessee came storming back, however, moving within one with a pair of runs in the top of the fifth. Once again, the Vols got a leadoff runner when Duffy was hit in the back on the first pitch of the inning. Osborne then laced a double down the line in left to put two runners in scoring position with nobody out for Polk. Although he hit the ball hard, Polk smashed a line drive right at the second baseman for the first out. The Vols were undeterred though and Norfork ripped a groundball right back up the middle that hit off the rubber and ricocheted high up in the air for an RBI single. Osborne was also able to move up to third on the play before scoring on a sacrifice fly by Hawn to his former South Doyle High School teammate Brentz in deep center.
The two teams both put up zeroes in the sixth, but the Volunteers struck for another run in the seventh to tie the game at 4-4. The Big Orange played fundamental baseball to earn the score. After Osborne was plunked to start the frame, a bunt single by Polk and a sac bunt by Norfork put runners on second and third with just one out before yet another wild pitch by the MTSU pitching staff allowed Osborne to score to tie the game.
The tally on the scoreboard would not be tied for long though, as MTSU used a leadoff double and one-out single to regain the advantage, 5-4, in the bottom of the seventh. Tennessee decided it had seen enough at that point, however, and put a four-spot up the next inning behind the strength of Thurber’s blast and three other hits.
The Big Orange will next return to Knoxville for its final weekend of non-conference action as it is set to host the Arby’s Classic, March 12-14, with Connecticut, No. 17 Ohio State and Marshall making the trip to Rocky Top. For more information on Tennessee baseball, visit UTSports.com or follow @VolBaseball on Twitter.