The Vols held a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth against Arkansas, and after a one-out walk and a single, they had a chance to break Sunday’s rubber match open. The No. 1 Razorbacks brought in the nation’s top reliever Kevin Kopps, who got two outs, ending the Vols’ threat. It proved to be the game’s the turning point, as Arkansas scored in each of the next two innings to take the lead, eventually winning 3-2.
It was a day of missed opportunities for the No. 4 Tennessee baseball team (39-13, 18-9 SEC), who celebrated its eight seniors in the final regular-season weekend game. Blade Tidwell twirled the best start of his young career, but the Vols left eight men on base, wasting the freshman’s terrific effort.
Tidwell dominated over the game’s first six innings. He ran into trouble in the first inning – second and third with one out – but he induced fly out to Jordan Beck, who threw a runner out at home, ending the inning and keeping the game scoreless. Tidwell walked one in the second inning, but went on to retire the next 14 batters he faced.
“His performance was electric,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on Tidwell. “To go as deep as he did gave us a great chance to win.”
In the seventh inning, Tidwell gave up a bloop double to Brady Slavens, and after a wild pitch, he scored on a sacrifice fly to tie the game. The righty gathered himself and struck out the last batter of the inning, for what seemed to be the end of his outing.
Instead, Vitello sent Tidwell back out for the eighth inning, and the decision proved costly, as he walked the leadoff man. Vitello yanked his starter and went to Sean Hunley, but the senior reliever allowed the run to score, giving Arkansas its first lead of the day.
“It was his game to win or lose.” Vitello said on the decision to leave Tidwell in. “Once we knew (Arkansas) was going to bunt, we thought Sean was a good guy in that particular situation. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But it was a winning effort to the extreme out of Blade.”
The margin of error would not have been so tight had Tennessee scored more than one run in a three-inning stretch in which they put seven men on. The Vols, however, were only able to scratch a run across on Max Ferguson’s fifth-inning RBI groundout. On the day, the Vols went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
With a real lack of clutch hitting, Arkansas’ third insurance run in the top of the ninth was too much for the Vols, who could only muster one run in the bottom of the inning.
Frankly, the Vols played good baseball for the majority of the series. The runners that they left on base were costly today, but there was not an overwhelming amount for the series. Will Heflin and Tidwell shoved in the last two games, and even Tennessee’s thin bullpen was solid. But for everything the Vols did well, Arkansas just did it just better.
“When you plays team like that, a top-5 matchup like that, the No. 1 team in the country, the little things are going to matter,” Connor Pavolony said. “We’ll be better for it. And at the end of the day, when it matter more, we’ll be better.”
There are plenty of things from this weekend the Vols could take confidence in. They did play the top-ranked team in the country extremely tight all weekend, and as Pavolony said, “The No. 1 team was nervous for three days.” But right now, the Vols just feel frustrated because a series win was dangling in front of them, and they just missed it.
“We expected to come out here and win this weekend, I’m going to be honest with you,” Pavolony said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to come out and play them just like they played us. But at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. We’re just frustrated because we knew that we could have.”
The Vols have plenty to play for as they end the season. They could still win the SEC East, thanks to some help from Ole Miss and Georgia. But as the Vols host Belmont Tuesday night in the final regular-season home game and end their year on the road at South Carolina, their focus, as it has all season, remains on learning from today’s loss and improving for the next game in front of them.
“I would see it as motivation for us,” Tidwell said. “I know I’m mad right now. And I know it’s going to make me work out harder tomorrow, when I work out. I think our team is going to use it as motivation, and it should help us overall.”