Friday marked the 347th day since Tech had taken the field at Russ Chandler Stadium to play a baseball game. Given all that transpired in those 347 days, the wait might have seemed a lifetime to many fans. Shortly after 2 p.m. on that same Friday however, the count reset to zero as Tech’s fielders took their positions and junior left-hander Brant Hurter threw out the first pitch of the 2021 campaign.
The Jackets faced the Eastern Kentucky Colonels in their opening series and came away with two wins and a loss. The series gave fans their first chance to experience the new renovations to the ballpark — now dubbed Mac Nease Ballpark at Russ Chandler Stadium — and to get a sense of what Tech’s team will look like in this 2021 season
The aforementioned Hurter started on the mound for the Jackets on Friday. Hurter, who missed the end of the 2019 season and all of the shortened 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, enters the season as one of the Jackets’ top 2021 draft prospects. While Hurter will undoubtedly face some difficulties returning to competitive pitching after recovering from surgery, he is set to be the anchor of Tech’s weekend rotation.
Hurter put together a solid performance on the way to Tech’s first win of the season, surrendering one earned run on four hits and exiting the game in the fifth inning. While the results were good, Hurter did work his way into and out of trouble several times during his outing, limiting his efficiency. Junior RHP Hugh Chapman and sophomore RHP Luke Bartnicki added clean one-inning outings out of the bullpen, and sophomore RHP Chance Huff, who is a transfer from Vanderbilt, made a solid but brief appearance in relief.
Freshman RHP Jackson Finley had the roughest day on the mound. Finley closed out the fifth inning for Hurter and pitched a clean sixth before finding himself in trouble in the top of the seventh. The reliever pitched his way into a jam that saddled him with 5 runs, 4 earned, of the Colonels’ 6 total.
On the offensive side, the Jackets started out slowly, scoring single runs in the third and fifth innings, before exploding for six runs in the sixth inning and adding four for insurance in the eighth, bringing the final score to 12-8. Freshman OF Stephen Reid led the way for Tech, going two for five with a single, a home run and four RBIs, while 1B Drew Compton and C Jake Holland — both freshmen — each added a home run of their own. Junior SS Luke Waddell had a nice performance from the leadoff spot, going two for four with a walk.
Saturday’s game saw Tech pitchers struggle to throw strikes and contain the Colonels’ offense. The pitching staff issued a combined 11 walks to go with Eastern Kentucky’s 11 hits in a 9-6 losing effort. Redshirt junior RHP Andy Archer got the start for the Jackets and limited the Colonels to two runs, one earned, on two hits and three walks over three innings. It was Archer’s first career start, though he has been a reliable bullpen arm for the Jackets in past seasons — a role which he might return to as sophomore RHP Cort Roedig, who was a weekend starter last season, returns from injury.
The wheels came off for the Jackets in the fifth inning, as freshman RHP Dalton Smith got into a jam that eventually saddled him with three earned runs. The Colonels continued to score after that, tacking on two more in the sixth and one more in the seventh as Tech’s bullpen struggled with their control.
The Jackets’ bats were again quiet early, scoring just one run until the fifth inning, by which time the Colonels had taken a comfortable 6-1 lead. Tech chipped away in the final innings, but could not overcome the deficit as Eastern Kentucky continued to add runs, eventually winning 9-6.
It was a sloppy day all around for the Jackets, as the offense left 12 on base and Waddell, one of the Jackets’ most experienced fielders, committed two uncharacteristic errors.
Sophomore LHP Sam Crawford got the start for the Sunday rubber match and put together an excellent outing – a relief for Tech fans feeling queasy after Saturday’s game. Crawford set the tone for the pitching staff, working cleanly and efficiently as he went six innings and surrendered just one run (unearned, thanks to his own throwing error). Huch Chapman made his second relief appearance of the weekend and worked a hitless inning, while freshman RHP Zach Maxwell added his own clean frame and Luke Bartnicki closed things out in scoreless fashion for the second time in the series.
Luke Waddell set the tone for the offense in his opening at-bat from the leadoff spot, blasting a line drive over the fence in right field for the only home run of the day. Tech tacked on two more in each of the fifth, seventh and eighth frames, powering through to a solid 7-1 victory. Sophomore Justyn-Henry Malloy — another Vanderbilt transfer — and true freshman Jake Deleo each turned in two hit performances.
Overall, the weekend displayed the range of what Tech’s team is capable of in this unusual 2021 season. Loaded with as much talent as it has had in years, the Jackets have the potential to make it all the way to Omaha this season. Still, the lion’s share of that talent is concentrated in the first and second-year freshman classes – on Sunday, Tech fielded 10 players (of a total 15) who had never donned a Tech uniform prior to the 2020 season – and with such limited experience the team may struggle at times to put it all together. Still, the weekend left little doubt that the Jackets will be an exciting team to watch this season, whether for the right reasons or the wrong ones.
The Jackets face the Mercer Bears at home on Wednesday (2/24) before travelling to Raleigh on Friday to kick off conference play against North Carolina State.