The Vols were locked in a tight matchup with Alabama in the second round of the SEC Tournament Wednesday afternoon. With the score tied at 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, the SEC East champs and No. 2 seed Vols had the bases loaded with one out, and their most consistent hitter during the regular season – Jake Rucker – up to bat.
Looking for the walk-off win, Rucker put one into play, a ground ball to the infield that Alabama tried to turn the double play on. Rucker, however, beat out the throw and Christian Scott scored from third, giving the Vols the apparent victory. The players celebrated, but head coach Tony Vitello went straight for the umpires, knowing what was about to happen.
After an umpires’ meeting and reply review, they ruled that the runner going from first to second, Max Ferguson, had interfered with Alabama’s second baseman Peyton Wilson on the throw. Ferguson was called out, ending the ninth and all the Vols’ momentum, as they dropped the game 3-2 in 11 innings.
After the call, Vitello tried to argue, but to no avail. As Ferguson slid, he brought his left hand up and made contact, albeit it soft contact, with Wilson’s leg and groin.
“He said he hit him in the nuts,” Vitello said on his argument with the umpire. “I was trying to get clarification.”
Since Ferguson’s hand hit Wilson’s groin, it could be interpreted as “illegal contact,” which is likely what the umpires saw. But the rulebook also says interference should not be called if the runner “makes a legal slide directly to the base,” which Ferguson undisputedly did.
“I saw Max slide straight into the base,” Vitello said. “So again, maybe too demonstrative. I’m still young and dumb, so sometimes my etiquette isn’t the best. That’s why I was pointing to the slide mark there. That he slid straight into the base.”
Regardless of whether or not the umpires made the right call, it obviously affected the Vols’ play. They had just one base runner in two extra innings, a two-out single from first baseman Luc Lipcius in the 10th.
“I don’t think I’ve seen one like that when it matters so much,” Lipcius said on the call. “But there’s nothing really much we can do. The umpires made the call, and it affected us.”
Meanwhile Alabama, the beneficiaries of an extra life in this game, strung together a pair of hits off Sean Hunley in the top of the 11th. Owen Diodati drove in the go-ahead run with a single to center, and the Vols went down in order in the bottom of the frame to end it.
Tennessee was only in the situation to win the game in the ninth thanks to two huge performances on the mound from Will Heflin and Camden Sewell. Heflin, who transitioned from a spot-starter in March to the Vols’ Game 1 starter in the SEC Tournament, fired 5.1 innings of two-run ball. The senior lefthander allowed four hits and two walks while punching out two, but left the bases loaded in the sixth.
“On Sunday, Coach (Vitello) texted me, and said, ‘You got the ball Game 1,’” Heflin said. “And anytime I get a chance to go out there, I’m going to give it my best bolt, and never going to turn that opportunity down. Had a couple days to prepare for it, and I thought it went well overall, gave us a chance to win.”
Sewell came on in relief and walked in a run, but retired the next two to end the inning. The righty faced the minimum over two more innings, giving the Vols time to rally.
The first two Vols to bat in the seventh, Lipcius and Jordan Beck, reached on two Alabama errors, giving the Vols a couple of runners for catcher Connor Pavolony, who came through with an RBI single to put the Vols on the board. Liam Spence followed it up with an RBI single of his own, tying the game at 2-2 and setting the stage for the controversial ninth inning.
Because the Vols had a bye into the double-elimination round, they can still salvage their Tournament run tomorrow against Mississippi State. Tennessee hopes it can put today’s emotions behind it, as it has done so many times this season, and prepare for a quick turnaround, with first pitch scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET. It’ll be a battle between the aces, as Chad Dallas will start for the Vols against Christian MacLeod.
“We got Chad Dallas on the bump, so that tells you everything you need to know,” Heflin said. “I think you’re going to see a determined team per usual tomorrow.”