Tennessee’s return to college baseball’s biggest stage went nothing like it hoped for after a 16-year wait.
Sporting 50 wins, four All-Americans, and the National Coach of the Year, the Vols were shutout by Virginia 6-0 in the opening game of the 2021 College World Series. It was just the third time in 67 games this year that the Vols were held off the scoreboard.
“I thought there were moments whether at the plate or on the mound where we lacked conviction and it cost us a little bit,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “And towards the end of the game, when the score wasn't the way we wanted, we uncharacteristically -- rolled over is not the right word, but we lost our edge a little bit, which has been so beneficial to us.”
The final score wasn’t for a lack of scoring opportunities, as the Vols had ample amounts of those. They simply had no answer against Virginia’s starter Andrew Abbott. In the first, fifth and sixth innings, the Vols had two runners on with nobody out to start the frame, but failed to score, leaving a runner on third each time.
In the latter two innings, the Vols got a runner to third with less than two outs. The fifth inning proved to be their best chance, and with two runners in scoring position, Liam Spence hit a hard liner, but Virginia’s second baseman Max Cotier made a leaping catch to rob Spence of a pair of RBIs.
One inning later with Vols on the corners and one out, Abbott struck out Luc Lipcius and Jordan Beck back-to-back, stranding the tying run at third in what was at that point a one-run game. Abbott (W, 9-6) allowed only five hits in six innings, walking two and striking out 10 on 104 pitches.
“I think Abbott's fastball was playing up in the zone,” Tennessee catcher Connor Pavolony said. “It was on the scouting report, fastball at high spin rate, plays well up in the zone. We kind of fed into what he was trying to do and never made an adjustment. I think that's what he went back to when he needed to get a strikeout or with two strikes and we just never adjusted to it.”
Abbott’s strikeout of Beck in the sixth not only ended a Tennessee scoring threat, but it took all of its momentum with it. The Cavaliers jumped all over Chad Dallas (6.1 IP, 4 ER) and Sean Hunley (0.2 IP, 1 ER) in the top of the seventh, blowing the game open on four consecutive RBI singles.
Virginia added an insurance run in the top of the ninth, and it would be too much for the Vols to overcome, as they went down in order to end the game. The Vols’ offense that averaged over seven runs per game entering the day went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, 0-for-4 with a runner on third and less than two outs, and left eight men on base.
“There's a chance to throw a blow in the first inning and a couple other times,” Vitello said. “You don't really know how the game would have changed. But regardless, the narrative still would have been there was moments where we didn't play baseball the way that we need to, the way we're capable of, and also in the fashion that got us to be able to play in this stadium.”
Fortunately for Tennessee, its season isn’t over just yet. The first bracket of the College World Series is double elimination, so they Vols will play for their season Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET against the loser of Texas-Mississippi State. The Vols have not been in the hole like this often in 2021. Most recently, they went a perfect 5-0 over the last two weekends in the Regional and Super Regional rounds.
The Vols find themselves in a similar situation to the SEC Tournament in late May, in which they lost the opening game in Hoover before making the tournament final. Vitello is confident that the experience will help the Vols bounce back from an uncharacteristic loss and get back to playing the style of baseball that got them to Omaha.
“It's nice when things go the way it did in the Regional and the Super Regional. But to be honest with you, our brand name is to bounce back and to answer,” Vitello said. “So, yeah, there's no need to stew. There's extra time between now and that game. So the time will be right to start doing what you're talking about and prepare to answer back in the fashion that they do and have done, and Hoover is one example.”