In a battle for the best record in the SEC, the No. 4 Tennessee baseball team fell short to top-ranked Arkansas 6-5 Friday night. The Vols scored five runs in the first inning, but had just three hits in the remaining eight innings, as the nation’s top offense rallied to take the lead in the eighth inning.
The Vols jumped all over Arkansas’ ace Patrick Wicklander in the first inning. Liam Spence led off the inning with a single, and Max Ferguson reached on a perfectly placed bunt hit. Jake Rucker then hit an opposite field double that scored both runners runs with nobody out.
Two outs later, Jordan Beck hit a three-run homer to bring in the Vols’ fifth run of the inning. Wicklander had allowed just 10 earned runs all season before the Vols got to him for half that with only two outs.
“I was swinging at pitches in the strike zone,” Beck said. “If you get pitches to hit, you’ve got to be able to do damage. And most of the time, you only get one, and if you don’t do the damage, then you get out. That’s pretty much how this game goes. And when you’re going good, you get that pitch and you hit it well.”
As beneficial as a five-run first would normally be, it proved to be too little against Arkansas’ potent lineup. The Hogs scored two in both the second and third innings off Tennessee’s starter Chad Dallas, as Robert Moore and Brady Slavens both went deep to pull the Hogs within one run.
After the early scoring, the game became a battle of the bullpens, and Arkansas’ was just a hair better. Caden Monke came on after Wicklander in the third and pitched 3.1 innings of no-hit ball. After Monke, Arkansas turned to the best reliever in the country -- Kevin Kopps -- who went the last three innings and allowed just two baserunners.
Senior Sean Hunley came in for Tennessee and was just as good. After striking out two in a bases-loaded scenario in the fifth, Hunley retired the next six batters he faced. He did, however, run into trouble in the eighth, as a leadoff double and a wild pitch – a miscommunication between him and the catcher Jackson Greer – led to the go-head run crossing the plate for Arkansas.
“Baseball is definitely a game of inches,” Hunley said. “That incident with me and Greer right there, that was just a mix up of what sign we were following. And sometime that happens. Unfortunately, it didn’t fall our way at the end of the game.”
It’s a tough break for Hunley, who saved the Vols bullpen by going the last 3.2 innings. He made just the one mistake on Slaven’s double, but it ultimately resulted in the deciding run, and his third loss of the season.
Still, the Vols have plenty to be optimistic about. They put up a five-spot on one of the best pitchers in the SEC and continued to have good at-bats throughout. They even made Kopps throw 67 pitches in his three innings of work.
“It may have slowed down on the stats sheet, but I think we put some big swings on the ball,” Beck said. “I give it to their defense. They had a couple of diving catches, maybe a robbed home run . . . That’s just how it goes.”
Against most teams, that kind of baseball would have been enough to win. But against the first-place Razorbacks, the Vols found themselves on the wrong end of an electric night in front of a sold-out crowd at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“As the night went on, things got a little tighter,” head coach Tony Vitello said. “So again, those emotions and the tension is running high. I didn’t really see anyone go completely outside of themselves, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty like that, it’s not as easy to push one across. And they just happened to push one more than we did.”
The Vols have a chance to make up ground in the standings and even the series tomorrow afternoon, with Will Heflin (2-2, 4.17) on the mound against Peyton Pallette (1-2, 4.01). First pitch is set for 12 p.m. ET.