As storms continued to roll across the east coast, Tennessee looked to keep its offense rolling in Hoover. The Vols, who run-ruled their last two adversaries, 12-2 over Mississippi State Thursday and 11-0 over Alabama Friday, looked to continue riding that momentum into Saturday’s matchup.
It’s fitting that Tennessee had to get through Florida en route to an SEC tournament championship opportunity; more than a thorn in the Vols’ side, the Gators are more akin to a knife in the heart of Tennessee athletics over the last couple decades – in every sport. While this matchup might not have elicited the same emotion as a Saturday in Neyland between these two schools, the stakes were arguably higher than what the football team has seen in years.
Tennessee has looked like a team with a chip on their shoulders after being the victim of a questionable runner-interference call against Max Ferguson Wednesday afternoon when Tennessee took on Alabama in the opening round, a call that would cost the Vols the first game of the tournament.
The Volunteer baseball program jumped into national prominence in a big way in 2021, raising their stock steadily and with conviction throughout the regular season, and particularly once SEC play started. The base-vols, as they’ve colloquially been called, are challenging the traditionally held belief that the University of Tennessee is a football school, or that it’s a basketball school; they would contend, I imagine, that the university is now a baseball school.
In the tournament’s penultimate day of play, Tennessee manager Tony Vitello opted for Cam Sewell to start the game on the mound. Coming into the game, Sewell commanded a 3.55 ERA (1.03 WHIP) through 38 innings pitched on the season.
On what appeared to be a day in which offense would be difficult to come by, Tennessee was able to strike first, plating a run in the third inning. The Vols got themselves into a good scoring situation after Connor Pavolony singled to lead off the inning before Liam Spence walked.
A sacrifice bunt by Max Ferguson put two runners in scoring position with only one out. The Gators kept the infield back, despite the chance for Tennessee to draw first blood. That decision wouldn’t cost them. Jake Rucker slapped a ball to third base, which was fielded and thrown home; a short rundown ensued, resulting in Pavolony being tagged out. Both runners advanced on the play.
With two outs and two on, Evan Russell – who’s had a flare for the dramatic this season – quickly fell behind the fireballer Brandon Sproat, 0-2. Russell reached out for a 1-2 pitch and was able to punch it through the left side, scoring one run on the play, but a strong throw from left field nailed the second would-be scorer, Rucker, ending the inning.
In the following inning, a Beck double followed up a Luc Lipcius walk, which plated the Vols’ second run of the game. That ball was a lined shot which bounced off and trickled away from the diving Jacob Young in left. A subsequent wild pitch with two outs would bring in the third run of the game.
In an attempt to secure some insurance, Tennessee was able to strike again in the seventh. Liam Spence’s leadoff single and Ferguson’s bunt would ultimately set the table for a Drew Gilbert single, extending the Tennessee lead, 4-0.
Perhaps the biggest story of the game was Sewell’s contribution to the Volunteer cause. Florida hadn’t recorded a base runner through the first three innings – a fact that would change in the fourth. Sewell’s strong afternoon saw him pitch six innings, didn’t allow a run, gave up two hits and didn’t walk a batter (he did hit a batter, the only he faced in the seventh) before being removed for Redmond Walsh. He also earned the afternoon’s pitching win.
The game didn’t end without a bit of drama, however. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Gators got their first two runners on base off reliever Sean Hunley. Nathan Hickey reached on a dribbler towards first, then Jud Fabian singled on a ball that got lost in the sun and fell untouched in the outfield grass.
That turn of events brought the tying run to the on-deck circle with nobody out. Kris Armstrong stepped to the plate and got jammed on an inside fastball, chopping a ball towards third base, which was then turned into a 5-3 double play. After Kendrick Calilao flew out to centerfield, Tennessee had secured a 4-0 win and a spot in the SEC Championship game.
For the game, Tennessee accumulated eight hits and five walks. Spence was the only Volunteer with multiple hits, going 2-for-3, scoring a pair of runs. Gilbert, Russell, and Beck all drove in a run.
The SEC Championship game will be held tomorrow afternoon with first pitch scheduled for 3:00 pm, where the Volunteers will face the winner from the late game between Arkansas and Ole Miss.