Tennessee was gunning for history, but in the end, the better team won. The No. 2 seed Vols lost in the SEC Title Game to the top-seed Arkansas 7-2 Sunday afternoon at the Hoover Met, ending their incredible tournament run.
The Vols brought plenty of momentum into today’s matchup. They had just run-ruled Mississippi State and Alabama, and shut out Florida in yesterday’s semifinal. The Vols even scored in the first inning today, a Drew Gilbert RBI single that set up what was supposed to be sweet revenge against Arkansas, who took two of three from the Vols in Knoxville earlier in May.
But Arkansas was Arkansas. It’s the top-ranked team in the country for a reason. The Razorbacks never wavered, and put up a three-spot on Tennessee’s starter Will Heflin in the fifth to take a lead they would never relinquish.
The Razorbacks just added insurance -- a run in the seventh and three more in the eighth -- before handing the ball to the nation’s best reliever Kevin Kopps. The SEC Pitcher of the Year did allow a home run to Pete Derkay that cut the Vols deficit to two at the time, but shook it off and dominated the rest of the outing, closing out Arkansas’ first ever SEC Championship.
“Hat's off to him,” Derkay said on Kopps. “He's a great pitcher, and he made the pitches he needed to do to finish the game.”
While the Vols are certainly not pleased with coming up short, there are plenty of positives they can take away from an excellent run in Hoover.
First off, the Vols secured a top-4 seed and a bye into the second round for the first time since 2005. And after losing in controversial fashion to Alabama in their first game, the Vols shook the loss off and rattled off three consecutive wins in resounding fashion to reach their first Championship game since 1995.
Over that run, the Vols’ pitching was just phenomenal. They allowed only 12 runs in five games, and over half of those runs came on Sunday alone. Tennessee held Alabama and Mississippi State to a combined five runs in the first two games, and shutout Alabama and Florida over the next two days. Right hander Camden Sewell, who tossed six scoreless against Florida on Saturday, was one of two pitchers named to the All-Tournament team.
“Those guys are awesome. They work their butt off every day,” third baseman Jake Rucker said of Tennessee’s pitching. “Coach (Anderson) is definitely one of the best pitching coaches in the country, I think. Just them coming out there and having that mentality and throwing strikes to get ahead of batters, definitely, you guys saw how impressive that can be and can help us get in a good position to win every game.”
And Tennessee’s bats were hot too. The Vols outscored their opponents 31-12 in five tournament games, including a run-rule win on both Thursday and Friday. Three Vols’ position players -- Connor Pavolony, Luc Lipcius and Max Ferguson – joined Sewell on the All-Tournament team. This year marked the first time since 1995 that the Vols had at least four players on the All-Tournament team.
People are now taking note of this program. The seats of the Hoover Met were filled with a large amount of orange for today’s game at what was supposed to be a neutral site.
“I mean, it was just unbelievable to look up in the stands and see that much orange,” Derkay said. “I love this fan base, and they're really showing out for us, and we can kind of feed off their energy.”
Even in some of the biggest conference series of the regular season, the atmosphere at Lindsey Nelson Stadium was more electric than it had been in years. And now, Knoxville will host a regional for the first time since 2005.
“The good thing is, again, our guys have got a taste of it against a couple of conference opponents of what Lindsey Nelson stadium can be like,” head coach Tony Vitello said. “I think it will be even bigger. People will be tailgating. They'll add some seats. It's why you fight all year long for home field advantage.”
Of course, this championship-game loss will stings on the long bus ride back, but this tournament is just motivation; the beginning of what looks to be a very a promising month for baseball in Tennessee.
“The bitterness of the loss won't go away,” Vitello said. “But these guys have kind of shown, after a Saturday loss and we go into a Sunday or after a Game 1 tourney loss, they seem to get motivation from stuff like that.”