Middle Tennessee State senior reliever Jordan Cooper, a former Farragut High School star, stamped out two Tennessee rallies to earn the save as the Blue Raiders beat UT 7-6 on Tuesday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
For MTSU (25-22), it was the fifth win in a row against the Vols (18-25) and the second in a week. Tennessee fell 11-5 last Tuesday in Murfreesboro.
It was especially sweet for Cooper, a big lefty who began his career at Ole Miss, detoured at a junior college and then transferred to Middle Tennessee, where he will end his career undefeated against his hometown team.
“It’s definitely nice,” said Cooper, who had several family members in attendance. “I didn’t expect to be here, but everything happens for a reason, and here I am playing against UT.”
Cooper entered the game with a 7-5 lead and escaped jams in the eighth and ninth.
In the eighth, UT left fielder Vincent Jackson smacked a leadoff triple into the left-field corner. He scored on a groundout, but the Vols couldn’t manage another run.
In the ninth, Cooper was one strike away from ending the game against former Farragut teammate Ethan Bennett, but gave up a 3-2 walk to put runners at first and second. Two pitchers were warming up in the Raiders’ bullpen, but coach Jim McGuire opted to stick with Cooper against Jackson, a left-handed batter.
“We had confidence in Jordan, and we definitely wanted him to face the left-hander,” McGuire said. “That was Jordan’s last guy no matter what happened.”
Jackson hit a soft liner to center to end the game.
While MTSU had four home runs — two by Trent Miller and two by Jake Ellison — the Vols amassed most of their runs with aggressive baserunning.
A double steal and throwing error on MTSU’s catcher fueled a four-run fourth inning. The Vols scored in the first inning on a daring steal of home plate by Will Maddox.
Maddox swiped home even though MTSU pitcher Kooper Kessler was working out the stretch, something that seldom happens.
“(Kessler) was just not paying attention to the runner at third,” McGuire said. “(Maddox) extended his lead, extended it some more and then saw (Kessler) look in for the sign and took off. Our catcher was on his heels. It was our fault. We were caught napping, but it was a great play.”
UT coach Dave Serrano said Maddox made a dash for home without prompting from the third-base coach or a sign from the dugout.
“Will did that on his own,” Serrano said. “I think that was the first time I’ve ever seen a (pitcher) working out of the stretch and the runner goes right in his face. Will plays the game extremely hard and sometimes he does some things that we scratch our head about. But I’d like to have a lot of pitchers who play the game like that.”
Of the Vols’ six pitchers, Eric Martin (two scoreless innings, three strikeouts) was most effective. Reliever Trevor Charpie (2-4), who allowed three runs on three hits and two walks in 2/3 innings, took the loss. Reliever Drake Owenby made his first appearance since March 29 after serving a suspension for a DUI arrest. He allowed a solo homer in one inning of work. Starter Blake Thomas allowed three runs in three innings.
“It was about the pitching tonight,” Serrano said. “The difference tonight is they were able to execute off-speed pitches behind in the count for strikes and we didn’t.”
UT plays host to Georgia for a three-game series beginning Friday. The Vols (6-15 in the SEC) are battling the Bulldogs (4-16) and three other league bottom-dwellers for the final spots in the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. Currently, the Vols are 13th in the SEC and Georgia is last. The top 12 teams make the tournament.
“It’s not about first place like I wish it was, but it’s about saving our lives and our goal of getting into Hoover,” Serrano said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee athletics. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.