Blade Tidwell had not gotten an out in the fifth inning since April 4. He had given up three or more runs in each of his last four starts, and was coming off a six earned run outing last week at Texas A&M. So his start today, 5.1 solid innings off two-run ball in the Vols’ 11-2 win over Kentucky was that much more important.
“He kind of relishes being in that spot,” head coach Tony Vitello said on Tidwell. “It’s a rubber match, and he wants it to be a competitive situation. And so we felt good about where he’d get. But we really wanted him to be able to get to the fifth or sixth inning. And it was huge. It simplified things.”
As has been the case with Tidwell over the last month, he hasn’t had many clean innings. In fact, he had just one today. But despite putting men on in every other inning, Tidwell battled through a decent Kentucky lineup. He allowed four hits and three walks, yet exited the game with a three-run lead.
The only earned run Tidwell surrendered was in the first inning. Austin Schultz led the game off with a double and he came around to score on Coltyn Kessler’s sacrifice fly. Tidwell would keep Kentucky off the board until the sixth inning. After he walked the leadoff man and was subsequently taken out, the runner came around to score on an error from the second baseman Max Ferguson.
Even though the second run did cross the plate, it was a much improved start for Tidwell. He hadn’t allowed two runs in a start since March 28, or just one earned run since a brilliant 7.1 innings against Georgia March 21. His fastball touched 97 mph, and he had good movement on his breaking ball.
Tidwell was dealing, but early on, it looked as if it would be another tight game. The Vols were ahead, but it was just by two runs in the sixth, and after their late lead was erased last night, and their bullpen was still a question, insurance runs would be important.
“I think there have been a lot of, just days in general where our guys have found a way,” Vitello said. “It just so happens this is the last game of the weekend, and I think our guys do a great job responding if Saturday or Game 2 doesn’t go so well. But they seem to finish strong, so it’s a feather in their cap for sure.”
Tennessee responded with a seven-run sixth inning, its second seven-run inning of the weekend. Jordan Beck got the inning going with a leadoff single, and after Pete Derkay flied out, the next four Vols reached base, capped by Jake Rucker’s opposite field grand slam. The third baseman finished with two hits and five RBIs after striking out four times yesterday.
The Vols wouldn’t stop there, as Luc Lipcius hit a two-run homer, his third of the weekend, and Beck had his second single of the inning. Beck went 7-for-13 for the weekend after having just seven hits in his previous nine games.
“The only thing that can help me with getting more comfortable is to get more at-bats,” Beck said on his steady improvement. “And that’s what I’ve been doing. The coach has put his trust in me, and it keeps doing it. That’s all I can do.”
All but one of Tennessee’s starters had at least one hit, and four of them had multiple. The top third of Tennessee’s lineup – Liam Spence, Ferguson and Rucker -- was especially good, going 7-for-13 with six RBIs, two walks and five runs scored. The Vols had better situational hitting in the finale, as they went 5-for-11 with two outs and 7-for-21 with men on.
“It’s a team full of winners. That’s the only way I can say it,” closer Redmond Walsh says. “There’s not a guy in the dugout, a coach that’s wants to lose. This team, top to bottom, is making plays.”
Gifted a nine-run lead, Walsh went the final 3.2 innings of the game, and was dominant. He struck out five and did not allow a base runner, nailing down his fifth save of the season. Interestingly enough, Walsh’s last two saves have been multiple inning efforts in games his team has won by nine or more runs.
Walsh’s multi-inning relief effort gave Tennessee’s fatigued bullpen a much needed day off. Kirby Connell and Sean Hunley both worked yesterday and were likely unavailable, so the senior’s outing was critical for the Vols, as two of they wouldn’t have two of their go-to arms.
But it was only possible because of a bounce back day from the Vols’ offense and most importantly, Tidwell.
“(Tidwell) made it to where the settings were in our favor on the mound, but the offense complimented where he didn’t in tremendous fashion,” Vitello said.