After locking up a much-needed series win against the 16th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels(34-23 16-14), the 23rd-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (38-18, 14-16) entered Saturday’s matchup with not only a chance to sweep the Rebels, but to pull within .500 of SEC play.
Oh, and a sweep would basically guarantee a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
But the Vols’ five-game winning streak was snapped as an early 5-0 deficit was just too much to overcome.
The Vols were the only team to record a hit in the first inning as Zach Liginfelter and Gunnar Hoglund both made good work in the opening inning. It was a 1-2-3 inning for Liginfelter and while Hoglund gave up a double, he also recorded two strikeouts.
Ole Miss’ bats came to life in the top of the second inning. It started with Cole Zabowski reaching first base off a walk and Ryan Olenek followed up with a single to advance Zabowski to second.
A pop fly from Graham allowed Olenek to steal second and Zabowski to steal third, but the latter was also able to make his way home, scoring the first run of the game to give the Rebels the 1-0 lead.
Liginfelter was able to recover, dispatching the next two batters, but the Vols’ offense couldn’t provide an answer to the Rebels’ run.
Things got rough for Liginfelter after Tyler Keenan blasted a three-run home run to push the lead to 4-0 in the top of the third. The Vols couldn’t get anything done in the bottom of the inning.
Ole Miss was beginning to capitalize on Friday night’s missed opportunity.
Two quick singles in the top of the fourth led to Will Heflin coming in for Liginfelter, but Ole Miss was still able to score thanks to a sac fly that allowed Kevin Graham to score and push the lead to 5-0.
Liginfelter finished the game with five runs, four hits, two walks, and two strikeouts in 3.1 innings pitched.
Tennessee’s offense finally came to life in the bottom of the fourth when Evan Russell drove in Alerick Soularie for the Vols’ first run of the game.
Heflin walked the first two batters in the top of the fifth, but was able to pick off Grae Kessinger at second. Ricky Martinez was able to sneak behind Kessinger to cover the bag and Heflin made a perfectly timed throw for the first out of the inning.
Richard Jackson would come in for Heflin just a couple of batters later and struck out Olenek to end any chance of Ole Miss extending the lead.
Tennessee received a stroke of luck when Pete Derkay’s hit bounced off Hoglund’s thigh, which enabled him to reach first. But the Rebels turned a 6-4-3 double play on the next at-bat and ended the inning immediately after Landon Gray popped one to centerfield for the third out.
Neither team could get anything done in the sixth inning, with both sides ending their at-bat with a 1-2-3 scenario.
Hoglund’s pitching was keeping the Vols at bay. By the time the seventh inning rolled around he had recorded four hits, one run, and four strikeouts on just 76 pitches in six full innings.
Jackson was able to dispose of the first two batters in the top of the seventh, but Kessinger was able to reach first and that prompted another pitching change. This time it was Andrew Schultz coming in to replace Jackson.
He was able to take care of business, but time was running out for the Tennessee offense. The team had just three chances left to make something happen.
The bottom of the seventh got off to a perfect start with the first two batters reaching first and second base thanks to a single up the middle from Soularie and a Russell walk.
Hoglund was replaced by Connor Green right after the walk. If there was any a time to cut into the Rebels’ lead, it was now.
Green couldn’t pull the Rebels out of the jam and walked Jake Rucker to load the bases up with no outs.
Green’s tenure was short-lived as he was relieved by Tyler Myers in hopes of ending the current Rebel nightmare.
The nightmare became reality when Derkay doubled down the right field line to drive both Soularie and Russell home, cutting the Rebel lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh with no outs.
And the Vols had runners on second and third. All of a sudden, this was a game.
A sac fly from Gray brought Rucker home to make it a one-run lead for the Rebels with a runner on second, but Christian Scott grounded out to end the inning. The Vols were still able to take advantage of their bats and now trailed 5-4 heading into the eighth inning.
It’d be up to the Rebels’ offense if they wanted to preserve the win. Sean Hunley came in for Schultz, Olenek got the inning started off on the right foot with a lead-off double down the right sideline.
Hunley was able to put the next two batters away, but Vitello made another change, brining in Redmond Walsh, who immediately got the Vols to the bottom of the eighth.
With the meat of Tennessee’s lineup coming up, now was the time to take advantage of the opportunity and either tie the game or take the lead.
But the Vols couldn’t get anything done and would head into the ninth inning still down 5-4.
The inning got off to a rough start after Dillard and Kessinger both reached off a double and single, but Tennessee was able to pull off a perfectly executed 4-6-3 double play to send the game into the bottom of the ninth with one last chance at a comeback in regulation.
Due to the lackluster performance of the Rebels’ bullpen, Mike Bianco decided to send in Olenek, the team’s centerfielder, to close out the game.
It was an interesting decision considering the fact that Olenek had pitched in four total innings all season.
It turned out to be an excellent move by Bianco. Olenek took care of business for his first save of the season en route to the 5-4 victory.
The Vols now await their seeding in the SEC Tournament, which begins May 21st. Be sure to check back in for any and all updates!