CORAL GABLES, Fla. — For eight innings Friday afternoon, the Texas Tech baseball team struggled with its execution, and had plenty of opportunities to work on it.
In the ninth inning, however, everything changed. Get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in finally worked.
Sophomore first baseman Eric Gutierrez crushed a game-winning RBI double to left-center field with one out in the bottom of the ninth, and the Red Raiders overcame 10 runners left on base to grab a 3-2 victory over Columbia in the opening game of the Coral Gables NCAA Regional at Mark Light Field.
“I had bad at-bats my last couple (before the ninth),” said Gutierrez, the Big 12 Conference leader in RBIs now with 57. “I was just trying to put the ball in play and trying to get a good pitch to hit. In my opinion I think we put ourselves in position to win every inning.”
Until the ninth, however, the Red Raiders (41-18) had come up empty. Thanks to Gutierrez, Tech won its third straight regional opener and advances to the winner’s bracket to face either Miami or Bethune-Cookman at 6 p.m. CT on Saturday.
The winning hit was set up when leadoff hitter Stephen Smith opened the ninth with a walk, one of seven issued by Columbia pitchers. After a sacrifice bunt by Bryant Burleson, Tyler Neslony reached when Lions second baseman Will Savage bobbled a ball that landed just in front of him. On the play, though, pinch-runner Zach Davis had to hold at second.
Gutierrez, who had popped up twice and grounded into a double play in his three previous at-bats, worked a full-count and fouled off four two-strike pitches before ripping the 10th pitch from Lions reliever Thomas Crispi (3-2) to the wall in left-center to easily plate Davis.
“What sticks out in my mind is we were getting into positive counts to hit and had some great opportunities to drive in some runs,” head coach Tim Tadlock said, “and really, in those situations, all you can do is get a pitch to hit and move on it. As long as we keep creating opportunities and get into counts and lay off marginal pitches and get good pitches to hit, I like our chances.”
It wasn’t until Adam Kirsch’s two-out, two-run home run in the fifth that the Red Raiders managed to get on the scoreboard, finally taking advantage of a leadoff hit after Burleson ripped his 20th double of the season.
Outside of that and Gutierrez’s hit in the ninth, clutch hitting was a struggle. Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the third and with one out in the fourth, but each time came up empty on inning-ending fly balls to left field.
“I thought their coaching staff and guys did a good job, really took some things away from us early in the game,” Tadlock said. “They were playing their outfield kind of tight and taking some hits away that against a lot of teams are hits.”
Jonny Drozd (7-0) earned the victory with 32/3 innings of shutout relief, scattering a pair of hits with one strikeout. Tadlock was non-committal on naming a starter for Saturday, saying a pitcher — which he refused to name — “tweaked” something. He would re-evaluate his options Saturday morning.
The good news is the majority of the bullpen should be ready to go, whether it’s the Hurricanes or Wildcats.
Columbia (29-19) will face the Miami-Bethune-Cookman loser at 1 p.m. CT in an elimination game, mainly because the Red Raiders came through in a run-scoring situation one more time than the Lions.
The Lions stranded seven runners of their own but just two in scoring position. Instead, Columbia had two players thrown out on the basepaths, one at home on an attempted double steal and another picked off by Drozd after Tech starter Chris Sadberry left with runners at first and third and one out in the sixth.
Columbia tied the game when John Kinne singled off of Drozd to allow Robb Paller to score before ending the sixth on a fielder’s choice. Drozd then retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced.
“Sadberry did a nice job out there early, too,” Columbia coach Brett Boretti said. “We had opportunities early with baserunners on and didn’t cash in like we would have liked to. Then Drozd did a nice job coming and getting outs. He did a nice job keeping us off balance.”
Tech starter Chris Sadberry battled through 51/3 innings, allowing two runs, both earned, on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts and three hit batters.
“I just felt like my command was kind of half and half,” Sadberry said. “I really wasn’t commanding either side of the plate a whole lot. I just tried to mix my pitches up and be tough in those situations to get us out and get us back to the dugout.”
And by doing so, he gave Tech the opportunity to come through when it absolutely had to.
“It’s a big deal,” Kirsch said. “It’s motivation to push us to the next level. We just have to keep growing as a team and keep playing together.”
NCAA BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
(double elimination; x-if necessary)
At A-Rod Park at Mark Light Field
Coral Gables, Fla.
Game 1: Texas Tech 3, Columbia 2
Game 2: Miami 1, Bethune-Cookman 0
Game 3: Columbia (29-19) vs. Bethune-Cookman (26-32), 1 p.m.
Game 4: Texas Tech (41-19) vs. Miami (42-17), 6 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 p.m.
x-Game 7: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 p.m.
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