After eight and a half innings, it looked as if the No. 4 seed Wright State would complete the regional opener upset of No. 1 Tennessee. The Raiders had erased the Vols’ three-run lead in the seventh, and led 8-5 entering the bottom of the ninth inning. The Vols -- who have been so keen for late-inning heroics -- had other plans. Drew Gilbert hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, powering the Vols a 9-8 win Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“These guys, if the going gets tough, they get tough,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “And if they get punched in the mouth, then they get even a little bit tougher.”
Everything looked bleak for the Vols entering the bottom of the last frame. Wright State had scored four runs in two innings to take a seemingly insurmountable three-run lead, its largest of the day. The Vols, meanwhile, were reeling at the plate.
They hadn’t scored since the third, and had gone down in order in both the seventh and eighth innings after wasting some mid-game scoring threats. And to top it all off, Wright State brought in its closer Tristian Haught and his 0.77 ERA to get three outs and send the Vols to the loser’s bracket for the second consecutive postseason.
The Vols had other plans for their weekend. Connor Pavolony led off with a hard hit ball that the third baseman Justin McConnell wasn’t able to handle. Liam Spence flied out for the only out of the inning, before Max Ferguson singled and Jake Rucker worked a five-pitch walk to set the stage for Gilbert.
“Looseness in the guys was something that was evident in the dugout and made me feel good,” Vitello said. “The only thing that didn’t was the score.”
Gilbert swung through the first pitch of the at-bat, but he didn’t miss the second one – a 74 mph curveball that hung right at the top of the strike zone. He hit it deep over the Vols’ bullpen in right, and took the long trot around the bases, taking time to watch his handiwork and flip his bat while his coaches and teammates went berserk.
“Obviously, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a good feeling,” Gilbert said. “All that stems from having our teammates all year trying to have each other’s back.”
“I am bleeding somehow,” Vitello said on his celebration – a sprint down the first base line. “Probably my own doing.”
The grand slam was Gilbert’s seventh home run of the season, and his first since March 28 against LSU – which was also a walk-off – though nowhere close to the importance of Friday’s blast.
With the win, the Vols move into the winner’s bracket of the Knoxville Regional. They will face Liberty Saturday at 6 p.m. ET, since the Flames beat Duke 11-6 Friday afternoon.
Now instead of having to play four more games in three days without Chad Dallas (who started today) and Sean Hunley (who threw 3.2 innings and 62 pitches in relief), the Vols are sitting pretty without a loss in the tournament. At least, as pretty as they can be against a very good Liberty squad, one that sent Tennessee to the loser’s bracket in Chapel Hill two years ago.
“We may be the one seed playing at home, but those other teams – I think you all have already said it – and I’ll admit to it too, we have three two seeds here,” Vitello said.
But the Vols aren’t stepping down from the challenge. They’ve embraced and overcome adversity all season -- from Evan Russell’s grand slam against Vanderbilt to Max Ferguson’s walk-off three weeks ago against Arkansas -- and now Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam is the latest on that list of season-defining moments.
“I think that something that’s special about this team,” Gilbert said. “Is that if we get punched in the mouth, we always find a way to punch back—no matter the situation. In the game of baseball, things aren’t always going to go your way, but it’s all about how you respond.”