The No. 4 Tennessee baseball team just survived a midweek matchup with in-state rival Tennessee Tech in a 10-8 win Tuesday night. The Vols offense picked up right where it left off, scoring in all but one inning, but the bullpen allowed eight runs in the last two frames to make it much closer than it should’ve been.
“I was really proud of our guys coming out and taking care of business early,” left fielder Evan Russell said. “Obviously, it got a little sloppy at the end. But seeing our guys come out, right out of the gate having good at-bats, not thinking ahead, protecting our home turf. I thought it was pretty big to see the maturity of our team taking care of business.”
The Vols scored early and often. They put up a four-spot in the bottom of the first and scored in each of the next five innings. The first three Vols reached base, with Jake Rucker’s RBI single driving in the game’s first run. The next batter, Drew Gilbert, brought in a run on a groundout, an out later, Russell doubled in a third run, and Jordan Beck topped off the inning with an RBI single.
The Vols looked like a totally different team at the plate from when they last played Tennessee Tech, a 3-2 walk-off win back on April 20. In particular, TTU’s Brock Myers tossed five scoreless in the first matchup, but the Vols jumped on him for three runs in three innings.
Tennessee continued to score, utilizing the full depth of its lineup. Seven different Vols drove in runs and 10 had at least one hit. Gilbert drove in two runs, and after a recent slump, the center fielder is batting .588 over his last four games with seven hits, eight RBIs and four doubles.
“He can change an entire game himself,” Russell said of Gilbert. “He’s a very big time gamer when it comes to big situations, you want him up. He’s a fastball hitter, and I think he got away from that and started overthinking about certain pitches to hit. I think he got back to that and having confidence in himself.”
Head coach Tony Vitello went to his bench often, and those lesser-used players got it done as well. The bench went 3-for-5, and most notably was Jorel Ortega, who hit his first collegiate home run on the first pitch he saw pinch hitting in the sixth inning.
Provided an early lead, Tennessee’s starter Mark McLaughlin was in total control over three shutout innings. He gave up a leadoff single to Ed Johnson, but retired the next nine batters he faced before he was taken out after the third. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out four. With tonight’s outing, McLaughlin has not allowed a run in seven consecutive appearances spanning 14.0 innings.
“I felt pretty good in warmups, but you give up hits, it’s what happens in baseball,” McLaughlin said. “I mean, I still have the same approach that I always have no matter if I give up hits or not. Just to pitch, and dominate. And it went on like that.”
The front half of Tennessee’s bullpen was just as good as McLaughlin was, as the first five relievers combined for four shutout innings. Gilbert worked a scoreless frame after driving in two runs at the plate, and Vitello was able to get some of his unexperienced arms some innings, such as Zander Sechrist and Hollis Fanning, each who had not pitched in over a month.
The latter portion of the Tennessee pen left plenty to be desired, starting in the top of the eighth. Freshman lefty Jake Fitzgibbons, who had not pitched since April 13, allowed two hits, two walks and five runs, though none were earned, on account of some poor defense up the middle behind him.
“When you use a lot of pitchers, you may not hit on everybody, you know,” Vitello said. “Somebody may have an off night. I don’t know that we really had that, (Fitzgibbons) just didn’t do a good job of handling a really tough set of circumstances he was delt by the defense.”
Elijah Pleasants was called upon to limit the damage with the bases-loaded, but quickly gave up a two-run double and two run-scoring wild pitches. Even in the ninth, usually reliable Kirby Connell was tagged for two more unearned runs, as Max Ferguson made an error on what would’ve been the game’s final out.
Despite its best efforts otherwise, Tennessee survived to take the midweek game. The win provided the Vols some crucial momentum heading into their most important series of the season against No. 1 Arkansas with first place in the SEC on the line, in front of a recently announced full-capacity crowd at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“I think this team is truly blessed to play in front of thousands of fans in this stadium,” Russell said. “Hopefully we’ll give them a show.”