Tennessee could not have asked to a better start to the series on Thursday and Friday, picking up two wins over the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs, keeping the Bulldogs off the board in the first two games.
With as good as those games went for the Vols, it almost felt as if it was only a matter of time before Georgia put everything together and began to look like a top five team. Well, that time was Saturday afternoon in the series finale.
After getting shutout in the first two games of the series, Georgia gave Tennessee a taste of its own medicine, posting a 7-1 win Saturday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“The fastball gets you in a hurry, so then all of a sudden the breaking ball is even better than it is,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “You have to paint a positive picture. In this game, if you focus on the negative, negative, negative you are going to wear yourself out.”
Zach Linginfelter got the start on the mound for Tennessee, but it was a short outing for the junior right-hander. The Bulldogs were able to jump on the board early, putting up three runs in the top of the first.
The game began with back-to-back walks to Tucker Maxwell and Riley King. After Aaron Schunk hit a blooper that landed in shallow right to load the bases with no outs, LJ Talley got the Bulldogs on the board with an RBI groundout.
“There wasn’t a lot on the ball, and there certainly wasn’t a lot of command, even when he did throw in the zone,” Vitello said. “That kid prepares his butt off, but if you look at the whole body of work of the whole season, he has been very good for us.”
John Cable kept the offense going for the Bulldogs, putting two more runs on the board in the first with a single to center. Georgia kept the offense going in the second, as Chaney Rogers hit a home run to put the Bulldogs up 4-0. Later in the same inning, King got a sac fly to score the fifth run of the game for Georgia.
Georgia would finish their scoring on the day in the fourth, when Schunk hit another home run for the Bulldogs, their second of the day, to extend the lead to 7-0.
“We made them look worse than they are, with the way we pitched the first couple of games, but there is some thunder in there is the bottom line,” Vitello said. “You can’t come in there and roll a breaking game and get away with it, especially some of those guys.”
Even though Georgia jumped on the Vols early, they had a couple of opportunities to get back in the game with the bats. The best shot was in the second, when the Vols loaded the bases. Jake Rucker started the inning with a leadoff single, and advanced to second after a failed pickoff throw got by the first baseman.
After walks by Landon Gray and Jay Charleston loaded the bases, Max Ferguson grounded out to the pitcher to end the inning. Tennessee scored its only run in the ninth, off a solo home run by pinch hitter Evan Russell.
“I was excited to get in the game, that was my first AB on the weekend, and I was pretty much chomping at the bit,” Russell said. “Last year, Georgia was actually my best weekend I had as a freshman, and I was just excited to get in and got a good pitch to hit, and I feel like I was ready.”
After Tennessee was not able to capitalize in the early going, they gave Georgia pitcher Toney Locey a chance to settle in and gain some confidence. After Locey struggled early in the first couple of innings, he finished his day retiring the last twelve Volunteers he faced. In all, the Georgia pitching staff was phenomenal, allowing only one run on five hits on the day.
“(Locey) is a good pitcher. He has a good cut to his fastball, and just has good stuff all around,” Russell said. “We had chances to score some runs, and we just didn’t come out. I feel like it was kind of we were too relaxed coming off two wins that we got.”
They also retired 21 straight hitters at one time in the game, before the Russell home run in the ninth. Out of the five Tennessee hits, Andre Lipcius had two of them.
While it is hard to feel good about the performance today, Tennessee will look forward to next week knowing that it was able to take two out of three against a very good Georgia team, which came into the weekend leading the SEC East.
“It is huge for the program,” Russell said. “Coach Vitello is probably the hardest working coach and I am really proud to be playing behind him. I feel like this means more to him than anybody, but for the program this is huge, just to be able to get more fans out here against the No. 2 team.”
The Vols will look to rebound next week from a tough outing Saturday, beginning with a midweek game on Tuesday night against Morehead State, before traveling to Lexington next weekend for a three-game series against Kentucky. First pitch on Tuesday is set for 6 p.m. at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.