HOOVER, Ala.– After another day full of waiting, No. 1 Tennessee and No. 12 Kentucky looked to square off under the lights on Saturday night.
The Vols and the Wildcats were wrapped up in a tight game through eight innings, but behind the electric pitching from freshman Chase Burns and an eighth inning rally, Tennessee was able to take down a red-hot Kentucky team in a 12-2 win that booked the Vols their second straight trip to the SEC Tournament championship game.
Freshman of the Year winner Drew Beam got the ball to start things off for the Vols. After starting the game with a strikeout, Beam walked back-to-back hitters before needing a mound visit from Tennessee’s pitching coach Frank Anderson.
Whatever Anderson said to Beam must have worked, as the freshman responded with a strikeout and a groundout to escape the jam.
While Beam didn’t have his best stuff in his SEC Tournament debut, the former high school quarterback kept his composure and managed to throw 3.1 innings of scoreless, two-hit baseball. He also picked up six strikeouts, but accompanied those with a career-high four walks.
“For him to take control of the game and keep some zeros on the board was massive,” said Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello. “I thought Beam’s performance was awesome.”
Beam’s start was enough to set up the other Tennessee standout freshman Chase Burns who, much like Chase Dollander in the Vols’ win over LSU on Friday, expressed his emotion and sent a surge of energy through Tennessee.
Burns entered the game with a two-run lead thanks to a Jordan Beck triple and wild pitch in the first and a Trey Lipscomb RBI single to score Beck in the fourth. However, Burns saw that lead quickly fade when Kentucky jumped on him for a pair of runs in the bottom half of the fifth inning.
Burns responded by sitting down eight straight Kentucky batters and keeping the Cats from rallying. The shutdown performance helped the Vols hold out before the offense broke things open in the eighth.
Luc Lipcius got things going with a rocket of a single up the middle, which was then followed by a Beck and Lipscomb single to load the bases. Then it was Jorel Ortega at the plate who drove in the game deciding run in the easiest way possible: a hit by pitch to the helmet.
Tennessee wasn’t done there, as a wild pitch with Blake Burke up to bat scored Beck before Cortland Lawson roped a double into left-center field to clear the bases and give the Vols a four-run lead.
In the closing stages of a close game, Tennessee did what Tennessee did best: score runs. After being quiet for a majority of the game, the Vols’ offense was suddenly alive and well in their eighth inning rally.
The credit for the jumpstart belonged to Burns coming in relief and dominating like he has all year long while showing some outside emotion for the first time.
Like many of the Tennessee starters, that outward emotion is not part of who they are as players. But big moments in big games can bring out the fire in these players, and when those guys show that fire on the field, everyone else takes notice.
“It fires us up,” said Lawson following the Vols’ win over Kentucky. “If they start screaming coming off the mound, I’m gonna start screaming. It fires us up, it gets the crowd going, and it brings us together and gets us going for our next innings.”
And that’s exactly what happen. After Burns worked around a one-out single by striking out Kentucky’s Adam Fogel and Oraj Anu, the freshman walked off the mound with his fists balled, screaming in a passion-filled excitement. The Tennessee offense fed off of Burns to create some insurance in the ninth.
Jared Dickey made his first appearance since April and immediately picked up where he left off with a hard hit single. Lipcius was then hit by a pitch before Gilbert delivered for the Vols once again, connecting for an RBI double that extended the Vols’ lead. After a Lipscomb sac fly and a pair of walks, Tennessee’s scoring was capped off by Burke crushing a ball over the right field wall for a three-run home run that perfectly summed up what the Vols did to Kentucky to end the game.
Burns ended his night after 4.2 innings, allowing three hits and a pair of runs while striking out eight. It was then Wyatt Evans who came in to close things out by striking out the side and sending Tennessee to the SEC Tournament Championship game on Sunday.
The Vols are set to play the Florida Gators on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. CT) and will be looking for their first SEC Tournament championship since 1995. The game will be featured on ESPN 2.