Tennessee had been nearly perfect in its few games following a loss this season. Entering the day, Tennessee had won 15 times and dropped just one contest following a loss, with the lone occurrence back in February against Indiana State. Following Sunday’s shutout loss to Virginia, the Vols were confident in their ability to bounce back, win a tough matchup and keep their season alive.
But the Vols couldn’t climb over the hump Tuesday afternoon as they fell to Texas 8-4, eliminating them from the College World Series and ending their season.
“There were just a couple situations where we didn't come up with the big hit or big pitch,” designated hitter Pete Derkay said. “But felt like throughout the entire day we were fighting, and kind of played more our brand of baseball. We just got beat today.”
What started as a promising afternoon quickly went awry for the Vols. Blade Tidwell retired the side in order in the first inning, and in the top of the second, the Vols – playing as the away team – scored twice on RBIs from Jordan Beck and Pete Derkay.
Tidwell got himself into trouble by walking the leadoff batter and allowing a single. The freshman righthander nearly got out of the inning, but in a two-strike count with two away, surrendered a go-ahead, three-run home run to Eric Kennedy. The Longhorns then added another run in the third inning, as Tidwell’s second leadoff walk scored in as many innings.
The Vols were not done just yet, and quickly tied the game at 4-all in the top of the fourth, as Connor Pavolony and Liam Spence drove in runs on back-to-back singles. Max Ferguson then hit a 1-1- offering on the ground to Texas’ second baseman Mitchell Daly, who started a superb 4-6-3 double play.
That double play – which was upheld by replay – brought Tennessee’s momentum to a screeching halt. Sean Hunley came on in relief of Tidwell, walked two of the first three batters, and then gave up three consecutive singles, on which Texas took a three-run advantage.
In the midst of Hunley getting shelled, Tennessee volunteer assistant coach Ross Kivett was ejected arguing a ball-four call. The inning only compounded for Tennessee, when Silas Ardoin hit a ball to right that drove in two. The tail runner Douglas Hodo III was initially called safe at home, and even though replay showed Pavolony tagging him before he touched the plate, the call was upheld.
“I don't have a scale to weigh how much of a punch in the gut that was to our guys or how much of a detriment that was, other than just what was on the scoreboard,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on the play. “But 5-4 is different than 6-4.”
Redmond Walsh had to get the final out of the inning, and from then on, Tennessee’s bats offered nothing at the plate. Over the game’s final five innings, the Vols mustered only two baserunners, a two-out Derkay single in the sixth, and a Beck infield single in the ninth. Texas reliever Tanner Witt silenced Tennessee over the final 5.2 innings, striking out two and recording nine fly ball outs.
Tennessee certainly did not look like the nation’s No. 3 team over its last two games. The defeat marks just the second time all season the Vols lost consecutive games. The Vols felt that they did not play their brand of baseball Sunday, but they did Tuesday, and Texas simply outplayed them.
“They were the better team,” Derkay said. “They capitalized on a little more situations and made some plays when they really needed to.”
The Vols are headed home much earlier than they would have liked, but the sting of defeat should not take away from any of the accomplishments in what was one of the greatest season in program history. For just the third time ever, the Vols won 50 games – 20 in conference-- en route to an SEC Eastern Division championship, an appearance in the SEC Title game, hosting and sweeping both a Regional and Super Regional, and their first trip to Omaha in 16 years.
“Tennessee baseball is back,” Derkay said. “With these coaches and players coming back, I know this place is in a really good spot.”
In four years, Vitello has rebuilt this entire program and re-established it as a baseball powerhouse. There does remain some uncertainty about Vitello’s future in Knoxville -- he is one of the league’s lowest paid coaches, and despite the promise of an extension and renovations to Lindsey Nelson Stadium, is among the top contenders for LSU’s coaching vacancy, though the school has not reached out to him at this point.
Regardless of where he may be coaching next year, Vitello is focused on his players and the journey that got him to Omaha.
“I was locked up in that condo for a long time, man, a long time,” Vitello said, referring to his time during the quarantine. “And then we had to watch these guys hit BP on the field by themselves, play catch, couldn't do anything. And then you got to be around them for a whole year. And it was a pleasure cruise.”