The Tennessee Volunteers (45-16, 20-10) knew that Friday night’s matchup with the Wright State Raiders (35-11, 28-4) in the opening round of the 2021 NCAA Baseball Tournament would be anything but easy after last year’s three-game series.
And as it turned out, it was certainly anything but easy, but boy it was fun.
Both teams battled back and forth through the first six-and-a-half innings of the game before Wright State took a commanding 8-5 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth.
But some storybook magic pulled the Vols out of a big-time hole as Drew Gilbert’s grand slam in the bottom of the ninth gave Tennessee one of the more memorable wins in program history.
Chad Dallas took the mound for the Vols and everything went according to plan after Drew Gilbert tracked down a fly ball to make a great play in center field for the game’s first out. But it was pretty much a 180 for the rest of the inning.
Quincy Hamilton, the Horizon League’s Player Of The Year and a First Team All-American, walked and then Tyler Black hit a two-run home run to give Wright State an early 2-0 lead. It was a bit of a fluky play, as the ball bounced off of Jordan Beck’s glove and over the wall, but it counted nonetheless. It was Black’s 11th home run of the year.
Jake Schrand’s first go on the mound went much different. Liam Spence almost hit a solo home run, but it fell about four feet short and right into the right fielder’s waiting glove. Max Ferguson struck out and then Jake Rucker grounded out to short stop to conclude the Vols’ first at-bat and the first inning.
The top of the second went much smoother for Dallas. He recorded his first strikeout of the game and forced Zane Harris and Konner Piotto to ground out for a quick, three-up-three-down sequence.
Tennessee finally got on the board in the bottom of the second after Luc Lipcius bombed one to right center to cut Wright State’s lead to 2-1. The unfortunate circumstance was that the solo homer was sandwiched between Evan Russell and Beck strikeouts. Regardless, Tennessee now trailed, 2-1, heading into the top of the third inning.
Dallas continued his comeback from the Black home run in the top of the third. He retired three straight batters for another three-up-three-down squeeze, setting up his team with a chance to tie or take the lead in the bottom of the inning.
And the latter is exactly what happened. Pete Derkay started things off by walking to first base, which set up Connor Pavolony’s two-run, go-ahead home run to give the Vols a 3-2 lead.
Spence flied out on the subsequent at-bat, but Ferguson was able to do his best Pavolony impression as he jacked a solo shot over the wall in right field. Tennessee now led, 4-2, with just one out in the bottom of the third inning.
It didn’t stop there, either. Jake Schrand thought he was out of trouble, but Gilbert drilled a ground ball to short stop and Damon Dues couldn’t bring it in. Russell was able to put Gilbert on third with a single of his own, but it Lipcius who did the damage - again. The Vols’ senior hit a deep shot of his own to left field for an RBI-double that brought Gilbert home, Russell to third, and gave the Vols a 5-2 lead.
But Black and the Raiders were far from discouraged. This became evident as he hit his second home run of the game to start off the fourth inning. Tennessee now led, 5-3, but that would end up as the Raiders’ only highlight in the top of the fourth.
Schrand was still in to start the bottom of the fourth inning, which was rather surprising considering what happened during the Vols’ last at-bat. Alex Sogard’s decision immediately backfired as Pavolony doubled to left center and Spence walked to lead off the bottom half of the inning. Sogard took Schrand out and replaced him with Jake Shirk after the Spence walk.
Shirk found himself in big trouble after a wild pitch sent Spence to second and Pavolony to third, but the Raiders were able to bag a double play on the next at-bat to end the inning.
In a quick turn of events, Dallas found himself in big trouble in the top of the fifth.
Alex Alders drilled the game’s fifth home run -and the game’s third solo home run- to lead off the inning and make it a 5-4 game. A Piotto doubled prompted Tony Vitello to approach the mound for a discussion with Dallas. Dallas remained in the game and the decision looked like a good after he immediately struck out Justin McConnell, but he subsequently walked Dues and that was enough. Sean Hunley came in to replace Dallas with one out in the top of the fifth inning.
It looked like the Raiders were about to tie the game thanks to a Black single, but Ferguson and Pavolony teamed up to tag Piotto out at home. Piotto had rounded third and began to advance home, but the throw from Ferguson was enough to rattle Piotto, which led to the scramble where Pavolony tagged him out to end the inning. It was excellent awareness on Ferguson’s end and it saved a run.
Things looked pretty good for the Vols after Rucker opened the bottom of the fifth with a double, but they weren’t able to get anything out of it. Good pitching and defense allowed Hunley to retire all three Raider batters in a row during the top of the sixth, giving the Vols a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the inning.
Just like Rucker in the Vols’ previous at-bat, Derkay started the inning with a double of his own. Pavolony was able to get him to third and then Spence was able to put Derkay in position to score, but it was almost like a carbon-copy comparison to the earlier situation with Piotto. Derkay couldn’t score, but Spence was at least able to reach second thanks to fielder’s choice.
Jay Luikart came in for Shirk afterward. He quickly ended any Volunteer hope that involved extending the lead by striking out Ferguson to send the game into the top of the seventh inning.
Hunley was able to put Alders away to lead off the inning, but allowed two runners on first and second over the next two at-bats. There was a glimmer of hope after Hunley struck out Dues to force out No. 2, but the Horizon League Player of the Year came through right when his team needed him the most.
That’s right, Hamilton drilled one to left center for a three-run home run that put the Raiders up, 7-5, in the top of the seventh. Hunley struck Sass out a couple of batters later to end the inning and send the game into the seventh-inning stretch.
But the Vols couldn’t muster any offense as all three batters were retired in successive order. Wright State still led, 7-5, as the game entered the eighth inning — where they would tack on another. It was a solo shot to make the Wright State lead 8-5, and Tennessee suddenly was down to their last six outs.
The bottom of the eighth inning came and went, and the Vols’ bats remained silent.
With three outs to go, Wright State called upon Tristan Naught to finish the job. However, Connor Pavolony had a different plan. He ripped a single down the third base line to get the inning rolling. After Liam Spence lined out, Max Ferguson smacked a single to give the Vols runners at the corners with one out.
With the tying run at the plate, Wright State made a pitching change, inserting starter Austin Cline. Jake Rucker drew a walk, loading the bases — and the winning run was now at the plate.
And Drew Gilbert absolutely knocked the cover off of it. It was a walk-off grand slam, pushing Tennessee to a 9-8 win in the most dramatic of fashions.
Drew Gilbert wins it with a walk-off grand slam pic.twitter.com/y2XP4JkZJm— Mike Wilson (@ByMikeWilson) June 5, 2021
DREW GILBERT!!!!— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 5, 2021
You can check out the final score and stats here.
Tennessee will now move to the winners bracket, where they’ll face Liberty tomorrow at 6 p.m. ET.