The Tennessee Volunteers (48-16, 20-10) entered Sunday’s game looking for another win against the Liberty Flames (41-16, 19-2) so it could advance to the Super Regional Round of the 2021 NCAA tournament.
The Vols took a 1-0 lead and never looked back as they would go on to win, 3-1, and advance to their first Super Regional since 2005.
Let’s recap what happened.
Will Heflin found himself in a bit of trouble with two runners on and two outs in the top of the first, but he was able to strike out Brady Gulakowski to keep Liberty from reaching home plate.
Fraser Ellard started the game for the Flames. He was very effective as he retired the Vols’ first three batters on 13 pitches. All three players were able to make contact, but the Flames’ defense was on point and made sure no one reached the first base bag.
Heflin managed to match Ellard’s three-up-three-down in the top of the second, but he was able to strike out two of the three Liberty batters. Both pitchers were playing well through the first inning-and-a-half.
Evan Russell was able to get into scoring position after he singled to first and a wild pitch from Ellard allowed him to steal second base. Luc Lipcius grounded out, but it allowed Russell to advance to third. Jordan Beck was the hit by a pitch and the Vols now had runners on first and third. But Pete Derkay grounded out to second and the Vols couldn’t get any runs out of the inning.
Heflin notched his fourth strikeout of the game after he retired Gray Betts in the top of the third inning, but Aaron Anderson and Will Wagner were able to force themselves onto second and first with one out left to keep things interesting. The Flames’ momentum quickly faded, however, as Heflin buried Trey McDyre with three straight strikes to end the inning.
Max Ferguson was able to send one deep down the left field sideline for a double and it paid off as Jake Rucker’s single drove him home for the first run of the game. Ellard was able to strike out Drew Gilbert to end the inning, but the Vols led, 1-0.
The batting woes continued for the Flames in the top of the fourth. Heflin knocked down all three opening batters and recorded his sixth strikeout of the game in the process.
Beck and Derkay both singled to move to second and first base, respectively, and then they both advanced one more base thanks to a wild pitch. However, Ellard was able to get back on track and avoided any extra runs by ending Connor Pavolony’s at-bat with a ground out.
Heflin continued his dominance in the top of the fifth. At this point, he had just three hits, one walk, and seven strikeouts on 76 pitches through five innings. It was becoming apparent that the Vols could seal the deal if they just gave Heflin some more run support.
And that’s exactly what the Vols did. Ferguson was able to get to second thanks to a hit and a wild pitch and all it took was another Drew Gilbert home run to give the Vols a multi-score lead. Gilbert drove it over the deep center wall for a two-run home run to give the Vols a 3-0 lead with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Tennessee couldn’t increase its lead anymore after the Gilbert home run, but it didn’t matter if Helfin could keep up his prior performance over the next three-and-a-half innings.
Heflin was unable to do so during the opening portion of the sixth inning, however. Anderson was hit by a pitch and then Wagner double to right field to put runners on second and third with no outs. McDyer was then able to drive Anderson home and still make it to first thanks to a fielder’s choice by Heflin. It was a helluva play by Heflin, who was just a half-second off from making the throw for the out. Tennessee’s lead was cut to 3-1 with runners on first and second after the play.
Heflin finally notched his first out of the inning after striking out Gulakowski, but it was clear Heflin’s night was over at this point. It became even more evident after Tony Vitello decided to bring in Sean Hunley for Heflin, who finished the night with a 1.69 ERA, four hits, one walk, and eight strikeouts on 97 pitches. The eight strikeouts tied a career-high for Heflin.
But now all eyes were on Hunley. He didn’t crack under the pressure, either. Hunley struck out both batters to keep it a 3-1 game as both teams headed into the bottom of the sixth inning.
The Flames decided to make a pitching change of their in the bottom of the sixth inning, Mason Fluharty came in for Ellard and was able to clean up rather nicely. He struck out three of the next four batters to end the inning and keep Tennessee’s lead at 3-1.
Hunley continued to hold things down on his end. The Flames decided to change pitchers for the second time as they headed into the bottom of the seventh. This time, it was David Erickson coming in for Fluharty.
Erickson was solid, retiring three of four batters. But Liberty was running out of chances as the game now entered the top of the eighth inning. Hunley kept up his strong performance in the top of the inning, setting up the Vols with a great chance to close the game out (potentially) in the bottom of the eighth.
Tennessee was able to land runners on first and second with two outs, but Anderson made a great play by tracking down a Pavolony foul ball and making a diving catch to close out the inning.
The Flames had one more chance to tie the game or take the lead and prevent themselves from going home.
Would they get it done?
Hunley provided a swift and effective “no” as an answer. He retired three of the next four batters and gave Liberty no shot at coming back in the game. It proved to be Hunley’s eighth save of the year as the Vols moved on to their first Super Regional for the first time in nearly two decades.
The Vols will now await their fate when it comes to the next game. They’ll either play the No. 3 seed LSU Tigers or the No. 1 seed Oregon Ducks, depending on who wins Sunday night’s matchup. You can catch the game on Watch ESPN, First pitch is scheduled for 10PM EST.
You can check out the final score and stats here.