Evan Russell- baseball

KNOXVILLE, TN - March 27, 2021 - Evan Russell (6) during the game between the LSU Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Evan Russell. Evan Russell. Evan Russell.

The No. 5 Tennessee baseball team even the weekend series with Vanderbilt at a game apiece behind a three-homer day from senior Evan Russell. Will Heflin battled Jack Leiter for seven innings and kept the Vols close until Russell worked his magic.

“I don’t know, he may put some other people to shame if we put a statue of Evan Russell, some other people might get jealous,” Heflin said on building Russell a statue. “At least like a road or stop sign or something. We’ll see how the rest of the season goes, but I don’t think anybody is going to forget Evan Russell for a long time here.”

Vandy’s No. 2 starter, Jack Leiter, was not as sharp as he has been all year. Though they didn’t push one across until the fourth, the Vols made Leiter work hard early. He walked three batters and allowed three earned runs. Entering the day, Leiter had given up just three runs and one homer all season.

“Same theme with this group,” Tennessee’s head coach Tony Vitello said. “They stick together, and they fight and they got some grit to them. And that kind of initiated being able to put some good at-bats against a guy who is going to probably be an All-Star in the big leagues.”

After three innings and 51 pitches, Tennessee finally got to Leiter in the fourth. With two outs, catcher Connor Pavolony hit a 1-0 pitch to left center, his second home run of the season. The next batter Russell, went back to back, a deep shot to left, his first homer of the day.

The score would stay there until two outs in the top of the sixth. Will Heflin had retired eight batters in a row, before Dominic Keegan reached on a throwing error from Jake Rucker. The next batter Jack Bulger hit a ball hard to third, that Rucker was also unable to handle.

Heflin hung a 1-1 pitch to CJ Rodriguez, who hammered it for a three-run home run that gave Vandy a 3-2 lead. The next inning, Vanderbilt extended its lead to 4-2, as Jayson Gonzalez hit his second opposite field homer of the series.

Heflin really pitched better than his final line says at first glance. The four runs look bad, but three of them were unearned. He made just two mistakes, on the two home runs he allowed. Heflin didn’t have his best stuff, but he kept Tennessee right in it against one of the best lineups in the country.

“I’ve definitely had days where I’ve had better stuff and it hasn’t gone nearly as well,” Heflin said. “That’s just part of being a pitcher. You’ve got to find ways to get outs, however you feel or however the ball’s coming out that day. I was able to make enough pitches at certain times.”

The Vols pulled a run closer in the bottom of the seventh, as Russell hit his second home run of the afternoon. Pinch hitter Trey Lipscomb reached on catcher’s interference following Russell’s at-bat, and Leiter was pulled. Tennessee put another man on, but couldn’t get anyone in, and Leiter stayed undefeated.

Hunley worked a scoreless top of the eighth, and in the bottom of the frame, Tennessee loaded the bases with one out for Russell. He hit a first pitch curveball that just cleared the deepest part of the park, his first career grand slam.

“You felt like that last one almost was to the wall, and the fans blew it out with the energy that was in the park,” Vitello said.

Russell became the first player in program history to have multiple three-home run games in his career. He drove in a career-high six runs, and leads the Vols with nine home runs.

“I had some Cinnamon Toast Crunch this morning, but other than that, I don’t know what the secret is,” Russell said on his three-home run game. “I came to the park, I wanted to give my team the best chance of evening the series. I had no intentions that this was going to happen, but it’s pretty cool that it did.”

The Vols scored another insurance run in the eighth, and gave the ball to the lefthander Kirby Connell, who finished the 8-4 win. The Vols are now 29-7 and 10-4 in SEC play. They tied Vanderbilt for first place in the SEC East, and they can take the top spot with another win tomorrow.

 The biggest story of this team’s season is their resiliency, and the way they face adversity. That was one of Vitello’s biggest talking points after last night’s loss. It was going to be extremely important how his team responded today. They needed to have a good mindset and approach to get to Leiter, and they did just that.

Tennessee didn’t try to do too much against one of the nation’s best. The Vols kept it simple, grinded out at-bats and made the pitchers work, like they’ve done all year. And they’ll need the same approach tomorrow.

The Vols will start freshman Blade Tidwell (4-1, 2.91) tomorrow afternoon. He’ll face Vanderbilt’s Patrick Reilly (3-1, 3.18) at 1 p.m. ET, as the Vols look to take the series.

“Now we have the momentum or whatever you want to call it,” Vitello said. “But tomorrow is mutually exclusive from today. And our guys need to come to work with the right approach. And we just need to bring that, and we’ll take out chances.”

UT Sponsored Content