Tennessee did not want a repeat of last night’s dramatic, come from behind win. Instead, the Vols set a new NCAA Tournament program record for home runs in a game, and it only took them three innings to do so. The No. 1 seed Vols homered five times in Saturday night’s 9-3 win over the No. 3 seed Liberty.
“They were kind of on the hunt to get another win tonight, after kind of staring death in the face somewhat last night,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said.
The Vols wasted no time in grabbing the lead. Liam Spence – who had two deep fly outs to the warning track last night -- finally cleared the wall, as he lead off the first inning with a solo home run.
Like Tennessee learned last night, a slim, one-run lead would not suffice, especially against a team as good as Liberty. The Vols continued to hit the ball out of the park, launching two more homers in the second inning. With one out, Luc Lipcius lined a 3-2 pitch to right field for a solo shot, and three batters later, Spence went deep for the second time in the game, this one a three-run blast that capped the Vols’ four-run frame.
“One through nine, grinding out at-bats and making the pitcher work,” Spence said on running Liberty’s starter Dylan Cumming. “Making (Cumming) leave pitches over the plate where we could put good swings on. It was basically a team effort with all of us being able to grind out at-bats.”
The next inning, Friday night’s hero Drew Gilbert got in on the long ball action with a deep drive that banged off the batter’s eye in center. Not to be out done, Lipcius hit his second homer of the night and third of the weekend over the batter’s eye. Just like that, the Vols were up 7-0 in the third inning.
“It was a strong effort in that fashion,” Vitello said on the Vols’ fast start. “I think they’ve learned their lessons. And not that they ever did anything wrong in the past. But you’ve got to navigate through the waters of our league, tournament games like we’ve done in hoover, and emotional wins.”
All the run support gave the Vols’ freshman starter Blade Tidwell a wide margin for error, though he hardly needed it. He wasn’t as sharp as he has been over the last month – he allowed a baserunner in every inning – but he battled through and held the Flames off the board through five innings with three strikeouts.
It wasn’t until the sixth when Tidwell finally ran out of gas. With one out, the right hander allowed a single to Trey McDyre and walked Brady Gulakowski. A ground out later, both runners were in scoring position.
At a pitch count over 100, Tidwell got another ground ball off the bat of Jake Wilson that should have ended the inning, but a wide throw from Jake Rucker at third cost Tidwell the out and a run. Tidwell was pulled for Kirby Connell, who immediately gave up a single that Jordan Beck misplayed in right, allowing both of Tidwell’s runners to score.
In the end, all three runs charged to Tidwell were unearned. He has surrendered only six earned runs in his last six starts while striking out 32 over that 38-inning span.
“(Tidwell’s) a really good freshman arm, really good,” Liberty assistant coach Tyler Cannon said. “He’s got a really good fastball, obviously. When you get guys on base, you’ve got to take advantage of opportunities, and he did a good job of keeping us off balance.”
Just as Wright State did Friday, Liberty continued to put the pressure on the Vols. Connell trotted back out for the seventh inning, but was pulled for Camden Sewell after allowing a double and a walk. Sewell bared down and doused the Flames’ rally, striking out Will Wagner and rolling a 6-4-3 double play to end the jam.
The Vols added two more insurance runs off the bat of Pete Derkay in the eighth, while Sewell got the remaining six outs to secure the Vols’ a spot in the regional final.
Tennessee will play the winner of Duke and Liberty at 6 p.m. ET Sunday night with a chance to win the Knoxville Regional and advance to the NCAA Super Regional next weekend.
“Everyone’s rolling right now,” Lipcius said. “It’s a really good time for us to get hot. We’re playing really good baseball. It’s just really exciting.”