Tennessee secured a series win over Ole Miss defeating the Rebels 7-5 Saturday in a wild SEC thriller. An injury knocked out the Vols starter, but the bullpen came up big, holding off Mississippi’s lineup.
Ole Miss started with a sense of urgency as, the Rebels leadoff man Thomas Dillard doubled to left center.
Ryan Olenek laid down a sac bunt to move Dillard to third, and a passed ball allowed Dillard to score. Tennessee had a play on Dillard at home, but Landon Gray’s throw went over Garrett Crochet’s head allowing the runner on first, Grae Kessinger, to reach third.
Kessinger scored the next at-bat when Tyler Keenan grounded out to shortstop.
Crochet turned in a nice second inning and picked up the first out of the third, but a line drive by Ryan Olenek hit Crochet in the face ending the sophomore’s day.
“He’s in the hospital and probably has to have surgery in the morning,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “I don’t have all the exact details. I don’t want to misspeak, but there is nothing to hide. He’s injured… He’s walking around and he’s fine, but his jaw is misaligned.”
Freshman Camden Sewell came in to pitch and got Tennessee out of the inning.
Mississippi’s Doug Nikhazy cruised for the first three innings, but the Vols found some success in the fourth inning as the lineup got its second look at Nikhazy.
“Sometimes you just have to feel a pitcher out,” first basemen Pete Derkay said. “He (Nikhazy) was doing a little more offspeed to start off, so I jumped on that one and everyone else just kind of followed through and building on each other’s at-bats.”
Jay Charleston walked and Andre Lipcius singled giving the Vols a pair of baserunners. Tennessee pulled off the double steal, giving the Vols 100 stolen bases on the season, the most since 2005.
After Al Soularie walked, the Vols had the bases loaded and Evan Russell got them on the board with a sac fly.
Jake Rucker singled loading the bases again and Pete Derkay singled to left field, giving Tennessee a 3-2 lead. Martinez ended the inning grounding into a 1-6-3 double play.
It didn’t take the Rebels long to answer as a walk and a single gave Ole Miss a pair of baserunners with nobody out in the fifth. With runners on second and third and one-out, Kessinger evened the game with a RBI groundout. Sewell got out of the inning limiting the damage with a flyout to center.
Tennessee knocked Nikhazy out of the game in the fifth after he walked Landon Gray and gave up a hit to Justin Ammons.
Houston Roth came in in relief and Charleston bunted the runners over and Ole Miss intentionally walked Lipcius to load the bases with one-out for Soularie.
After getting down in the count 1-2 Soularie worked the count full before picking up a RBI walk. It looked like Tennessee was about to blow the game open, but Roth got Russell to pop out and struck out Rucker to end the inning.
The sixth inning started similarly to the fifth as a walk and a hit gave the Rebels two baserunners, this time knocking Sewell out of the game as Will Heflin came in relief.
Tennessee immediately made a game-changing play. Heflin’s first pitch missed low and Gray fired it behind the runner at second, getting Johnson in a run down and getting him out at third. Lipcius quickly turned and fired the ball behind the runner at first and pulling off the double play.
“Right before when we were with coach Anderson (pitching coach) and everything Landon (Gray) turned to Ricky (Martinez) and me, and said be ready for a back pick if there’s a ball,” Derkay said. “The ball happened, the guy took off; threw it; got him. Guy came off too far, got him too. It was just playing catch.”
Heflin ended the inning getting Servideo to fly out to left as the Vols held on to a 4-3 lead.
Tennessee missed a scoring chance again in the sixth as the Vols got runners on second and third with one out, but failed to get them in after Ole Miss reliever Tyler Myers struck out Ammons and Charleston to end the inning.
Sean Hunley came in to pitch the seventh and he got Kevin Graham to hit a fly ball to left, but Soularie dropped it giving the Rebels a baserunner and Tennessee its third error of the night.
After a hit and a pair of outs, Mississippi got runners on second and third with two-outs for its three-hitter, Kessinger. Hunley got Kessinger to swing at a 1- 0 pitch and flyout to left field to end the inning.
Tennessee loaded the bases in the seventh with a single and a pair of walks, but Martinez struck out to end the threat. It was the third straight inning that the Vols had threatened, but they only got one run out of it while stranding eight runners.
After a one-out walk, Tennessee went to the bullpen to bring in Redmond Walsh. He walked Johnson and struck out Michael Fitzsimmons to bring Kevin Graham to the plate.
Graham flew one to left and Soularie misplayed it, allowing the ball to drop over his head and the tying run to score. Johnson was waved around third and the relay from Martinez beat him to the plate and ended the inning.
After Miller walked Christian Scott to lead off the bottom of the eighth the Rebels went to their fifth pitcher of the night with Kaleb Hill.
Hill hit Ammons, and it would be the only batter he’d face as Parker Caracci came in to face the heart of the Vols’ lineup.
Charleston put a sac bunt down to advance the runners and for the second time on the night Ole Miss decided to intentionally walk Lipcius.
“You do have a base open so you can put me on and keep the double play in order,” Lipcius said. “I don’t know if it was necessarily me being hot or just the circumstances, but it was a little frustrating at times.”
Lipcius, the reigning SEC player of the week, turned in another huge night going 3-for-3 at the plate with two walks.
A wild pitch from Carcacci allowed Scott to score from third and the at-bat ended with Soularie walking to reload the bases. Russell gave one a ride to right field and Carl Gindl tracked it down, but it was deep enough for every runner to advance and give the Vols a 6-4 lead.
The Rebels made another mistake as a passed ball got past Johnson and Lipcius scored from third.
Caracci got Rucker to strikeout to end the inning, but the damage was done as the Vols scored three runs on no hits.
Things weren’t without drama in the ninth as Walsh walked the leadoff man and Dillard singled, giving the Rebels runners on the corners with nobody out.
Olenek grounded into a 5-4-3 double play for the first two outs of the inning as the runner scored from third. Walsh would get the next batter to strike out securing the a 7-5 win.
The win secured the series win and gave Tennessee its fourteenth SEC win on the season, likely punching a ticket for the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2005.
“You have another game to play against a really good team,” Vitello said. “Tomorrow will be a challenge and you have to turn the page in this league, but tomorrow you have to change it really really quick because the game’s at noon. That’s the challenge, let them be kids and celebrate, but at the same time be ready to hook it up tomorrow because it’s an important game for both teams.”
Game three of the series is set for 12 p.m. on Saturday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.