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Tennessee knocks off Vandy with the long ball

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Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

On Saturday afternoon, the third ranked Tennessee Volunteers baseball team (28-7, 9-4) squared off against the second ranked Vanderbilt Commodores (27-5, 10-3) in a battle for state supremacy.

After Vanderbilt took game one of the series Friday night by a 5-0 score, Tennessee looked to even up the series in a bid to setup a series-deciding game three Sunday. For the Volunteers, Will Heflin took to the mound to fend off the talented Commodores; the lefty impressed all day long. Vandy countered with Jack Leiter, the talented right-hander who’s expected to be picked second in the upcoming MLB Draft.

The game remained scoreless through the first three and a half innings before Tennessee was able to open up the scoring. With Leiter dealing on the mound, the Volunteers were looking to break through a seemingly impenetrable armor; Connor was at the dish and working on a 1-0 count when Leiter offered a pitch the Vols’ catcher could handle. Ultimately, the ball cleared the left-center wall, staking Tennessee to a 1-0 lead. On a 2-1 pitch to the very next batter, Evan Russell turned a ball that sailed over the left field wall, resulting in a 2-0 Vols’ lead in the fourth — that isn’t the last we’d here from Russell in this one.

Vanderbilt would break through to plate their first runs of the game when CJ Rodriguez sent a ball to the opposite field, right-center, with two men on base. Once the ball came down, Vanderbilt had gained a 3-2 advantage.

In the seventh inning, just as he’d done the night before, the ‘Dores’ Jayson Gonzalez sent a ball over the right-center field wall, further extending Vandy’s advantage to 4-2.

Leiter was still on the mound in the seventh when Russell came to the plate in the bottom half of the seventh inning. Leiter’s 3-1 offering resulted in a ball screaming towards left-center field and ultimately clearing the wall, cutting the Vanderbilt lead to 4-3, and resulting in Russell’s second home run of the game.

Incredibly, Russell would play hero in the bottom of the eighth inning. With Luke Murphy pitching for the Commodores, Russell stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. On the first pitch from Murphy, Russell drove the ball to deep left-center. As the outfield gave chase, they could only watch as Tennessee took a 7-4 go-ahead lead.

A subsequent groundout by Jake Rucker would bring in an insurance run for the Vols, giving them an 8-4 advantage going into the ninth inning.

Leiter’s afternoon ultimately ended after 6.1 innings and 110 pitches. He allowed three runs on four hits and three walks; he also struck out 10.

For the Vols, Heflin ultimately contributed seven innings, allowing four runs on five hits and one walk; he would strike out four.

Kirby Connell would enter the game in the ninth to try and shut down any potential Vandy attack. He would set the Commodores down 1-2-3 on only 10 pitches (groundout, flyout, popout).

Sean Hunley earned the win with an inning pitched, while Murphy drew the loss for Vandy.

Of note, Russell’s 3-for-3 effort (three home runs, six RBIs) was the driving force behind Tennessee’s success Saturday afternoon, as well as Heflin’s excellent performance in a high-pressure situation, virtually matching Leiter’s output in many regards.

With the win, Tennessee improves to 29-7 overall and 10-4 in-conference, while Vanderbilt falls to 27-6 overall and 10-4 in-conference, meaning these two clubs will be in a fight for first place in the conference during tomorrow’s rubbermatch.

These two teams will square off again for the final time tomorrow afternoon in the “Battle for Tennessee” with first pitch scheduled for 1:00 pm at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville.