HOOVER, Ala.– No. 1 Tennessee and No. 4 LSU were set to play some Friday night baseball under the lights at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in front of a packed and rowdy house.
The wild atmosphere translated straight to the field as Tennessee starter Chase Dollander led the Vols to a 5-2 victory to advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Dollander showed exactly why he was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year on Friday night. The 20-year old sophomore opened things against the SEC Co-Player of the Year Dylan Crews with a strikeout before striking out the side in the opening frame.
Jordan Beck backed up Dollander’s hot start as he got Tennessee on the board first with an RBI triple and scored on a wild pitch in the first inning for his first hit and scored run of the SEC Tournament.
Then the junior made a spectacular, run-saving grab in right field with a tip of the cap from Dollander before working a bases loaded walk to plate a run to extend the Tennessee lead. With Dollander rolling, LSU was looking to fight back from the deficit, and they did just that.
Tennessee’s defense began unravelling in the fifth inning after a Crews single was met with an error from Tennessee left fielder Seth Stephenson that allowed Drew Bianco to score from first. But it didn’t stop there.
The very next batter was LSU freshman Josh Pearson who hit a hard grounder to shortstop Cortland Lawson. Lawson booted the grounder, and in an attempt to make up for the boot, he fired a wild throw that allowed Crews to score from third base. The duo of errors in the fifth inning cut the Tennessee lead to just one.
With a runner on second and a defense that couldn’t seem to make a play, Dollander decided to take back control of the game. He forced a fly out before ending the inning with a 98 mph fastball to strike out LSU’s Tre’ Morgan as he walked off the mound pounding his chest and exploding with emotion, something that isn’t always seen when Dollander is on the mound.
“It just kind of came out,” Dollander said. “(Morgan) is a really good hitter and I had a guy on base and … I kind of blacked out a little bit too. It just came over me to do it so I let it out.”
Tennessee’s offense took note of Dollander’s energy and provided LSU with a fiery response in the bottom half of the frame.
Luc Lipcius got things started with an infield single, before stealing second base to put himself in scoring position. Drew Gilbert then immediately delivered with an RBI single to right that drove in the Tennessee first baseman. It was the third RBI single for Gilbert in the SEC Tournament.
The Vols weren’t done there, as two batters later it was Jorel Ortega who came through with an RBI double to left that returned a three-run lead back to Tennessee. The defense may have dropped the ball but to Dollander, there was confidence that they’d bounce back.
“It helps (my confidence) a lot. They might make a couple errors here and there but that’s gonna happen, it’s baseball,” Dollander said. “I always tell them that ‘I have your back and I hope they have mine’ and they showed that later in the game and it was awesome to see them flip the script.”
Dollander’s energy to end the LSU rally in the fifth and the offense’s response carried over as the sophomore put up a perfect sixth inning while striking out two Tigers. He would return for the seventh inning, striking out two before Vols’ head coach Tony Vitello decided to end his night at 6.2 innings, allowing just four hits and one earned run while striking out nine in 99 pitches.
While the Vols’ offense went quiet in the final three frames, the bullpen was able to feed off of Dollander’s energy and hold the Tigers to two hits and zero runs. The effort was capped off by Redmond Walsh’s 23rd career save, which ties Tennessee legend Todd Helton’s program record.
With the win over LSU, Tennessee improved to 51-7 on the year and earned a trip to the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday. The Vols will face the winner of LSU/Kentucky for a chance to go to the championship game for the second year in a row.