Tennessee baseball sends warning shot in taking Knoxville Regional: Lead the Vols at your own risk
Christian Moore bounced from third base toward the Tennessee baseball dugout. Evan Russell joined him, skipping in from second.
Drew Gilbert waited with open arms at the front of a giddy group bubbling with joy.
Tennessee led 8-4, an improbable turn after trailing for six innings defined by sluggish offense, lackluster execution and mistakes. But to these Vols, a breakthrough ninth inning seemed inevitable.
“I just don’t think that we fear very many people,” outfielder Jordan Beck said. “Even when we are down, it is kind of motivation to go more and have more and better at-bats and kind of push the game farther. The games are honestly more fun when they are close like that.
“You can see the competitiveness come out in us.”
Tennessee (56-7) was pushed twice in the Knoxville Regional, trailing by four in back-to-back games. Both ended with the Vols storming back. They scored 10 ninth-inning runs over two games, beating Campbell 12-7 on Saturday then trouncing Georgia Tech 9-6 on Sunday to advance to a super regional for the second straight season.
As UT gets set to host Notre Dame (38-14) in a best-of-three series beginning Friday or Saturday, the message is clear: Take a lead against the Vols at your own risk. The nation’s long-standing No. 1 team isn’t worried about it. They will find a way.
“There is a little something to this group where if something goes wrong, they kind of rally around each other,” coach Tony Vitello said. “Fortunate to be part of it.”
Plenty went wrong for the Vols on Sunday. Shortstop Cortland Lawson had an uncharacteristic game in the field with multiple errors. Tennessee couldn’t take advantage of getting the leadoff runner on six times in the first eight innings. A starting pitcher didn’t get into the fifth for the second straight game.
But UT showed something it also showed in Hoover, Alabama, during the SEC Tournament. Opponents have to play perfectly to beat Tennessee even when it isn’t perfect. It happened with Kentucky and Florida in the semifinals and finals, respectively.
Georgia Tech had an error that allowed UT’s first run to score. It had the most costly mistake of the game when center fielder Colin Hall ran in and Beck’s game-tying RBI double soared over his head. The Yellow Jackets couldn't get Kyle Booker out at second base early in the ninth inning on a grounder to second.
Tennessee took advantage of it all.
“They are hard to beat,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. “If you don’t do everything pretty crisp, you’ve got a chance to get beat and they did it.”
Tennessee reminded again it can win in a variety of ways, which is why it is the heavy favorite to win the College World Series. Relief pitcher Will Mabrey was the hero for UT on Sunday a day after reliever Kirby Connell starred. Hall noted that Tennessee’s team ERA is “really all you need to know” to see how good UT is amid the high-scoring offenses nationally.
It has weapons on the bench ready to step in and contribute. Jared Dickey led off the ninth-inning rally with a pinch-hit single. Christian Moore had what proved to be the winning hit, a two-RBI single off the bench.
“He wants to be out there when it is bigger and brighter,” Vitello said of Moore.
Much of that was understood prior to the past three games in Knoxville, though the reinforcement was emphatic. The way Tennessee flexed its comeback ability stood tall.
Vitello felt his team was pushed in new ways and challenged by big-time arms against all three opponents, including Alabama State on Friday. But you’re not going to beat Tennessee by having one elite arm.
It takes shutting down a lineup that got contributions from top to bottom in the regional. It takes not making mistakes in the field or on the base paths — like Campbell did in a critical moment Saturday. It takes dealing with the bevy of arms the Vols can call upon.
It takes finding a way to take a lead and then hold it, which neither Campbell nor Georgia Tech could do against a team that showed exactly what Beck said. Tennessee doesn’t have much fear, even facing a ninth-inning deficit.
“I vote in the coaches poll and I have been voting them No. 1 for a long time,” Hall said. “Nothing is going to change my mind right now.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.