After Wednesday’s controversial ninth-inning interference call erased Tennessee’s walk-off and eventually led to its extra-inning loss, the No. 3 seed Vols wasted no time in exacting revenge on Alabama, run-ruling the Tide 11-0 in seven innings on Friday.
The same lineup that Jacob McNairy held to just two runs Wednesday jumped on starter Landon Green for six earned runs in 2.1 innings. First baseman Luc Lipcius started the scoring with a two-run home run that left the stadium, and just an inning later, the Vols added five more on RBIs from Max Ferguson, Drew Gilbert, Lipcius, Jordan Beck and Pete Derkay.
Alabama’s first man out of the pen, Connor Shamblin, was not spared from the wrath of the revenge-craving Tennessee lineup. The Vols got to Shamblin for five runs, including a trio of solo homers by Evan Russell, Liam Spence and Ferguson that put Tennessee in run-rule territory.
“You had a team that wasn't ready to go home,” Russell said. “You had a lineup that was ready to get back out there and play a good Alabama team. I think it showed with the swings we took. I think it showed with the at bats we took. Everyone was kind of locked in, and we were on the attack mode.”
After mustering just two runs in Wednesday’s 11-inning affair, the Vols have outscored their opponents 23-2 over the past two games and have hit six home runs from six different players. Head coach Tony Vitello credits the outburst to his players’ familiarity with “a pretty awesome environment” at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Alabama.
“We did barrel some balls the first day, and I thought we showed up ready to play well,” Vitello said. “(Will) Heflin threw the ball great. We didn't get the result we wanted, but I think our guys are starting to get a little more cozy in this environment.”
In a win-or-go-home game, Tennessee’s standout freshman Blade Tidwell gave his team exactly what it needed -- a brilliant, lengthy start that saved the bullpen with potentially two more games to go. Over six terrific innings, Tidwell threw 95 pitches – 61 for strikes -- punching out five batters. He allowed only two hits and two walks to the same Alabama team that hit him around for five runs on April 4.
Tidwell’s stuff hasn’t changed much since then. He was amped up out of the gate today, hitting 99 mph with his fastball, right where he’s topped out all season. The biggest change for Tidwell over a string of five very good outings in a row has been his confidence.
“After the Kentucky outing is when I really started getting a lot of confidence,” Tidwell said. “I think it's carried over well the last five weeks. This is getting to the nit and grit grind of the season, so it's been fun.”
“He's still throwing the same talent-wise, but that dude has grown mentally and with a confidence that you can't fake, especially in this game,” Russell said of Tidwell. “You can't just wake up out of bed and tell yourself, I'm going to have a great day. Confidence is gained over time. It's gained throughout the season. Watching this dude turn into a completely different pitcher, you know it's special.”
With Tidwell dealing, Vitello was not forced to go to his bullpen early, only using Kirby Connell in the seventh so he could get some work in, as the mustached lefty had not pitched in 10 days.
With the win over Alabama, Tennessee advances to the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 1995. The Vols will matchup with the No. 6 seed Florida tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, a team they took two of three from in April.
Like Tennessee, Florida has a deep lineup capable of doing damage from all nine spots. Six of their seven qualified hitters have an OPS of at least .800, including the SEC’s second leading home run hitter Jud Fabian (20).
Where things will get really interesting this weekend is with Tennessee’s pitching, as the Vols have already used all three of their normal weekend starters. Vitello did indicate after the game that he might go with Tidwell again at some point, but they are mostly looking for someone else to step up to the challenge.
“You've seen, if you follow our team, how we've used guys on Tuesdays and in other situations too,” Vitello said. “I said it to the group yesterday, kind of been foaming at the mouth to at least have the opportunity to do that. Hopefully, I don't screw it up, but we've got some guys that are fresh, some guys that have experience that will be ready to go.”
“I'm interested to see who's going to step up,” Tidwell added. “I know somebody's going to step up, and that's just the way we play. I'm confident somebody's going to step up this weekend.”