Tennessee’s Late Offensive Effort Leads Vols to Win First SEC Tournament Championship in 27 Years

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics
By Joseph Bonanno

HOOVER, Ala.– Runs were tough to come by early in Sunday’s championship game. No. 1 Tennessee couldn’t get out of their own way with a lack of situational hitting and No. 7 Florida couldn’t bring anyone around to score.

However, after stranding a runner on base in each of the first four innings, it was the Vols who were able to break through late to wrestle down the Gators in a 8-3 win and take home their first SEC Tournament Championship since 1995.

Tennessee had nothing going for them offensively early. The Vols had a man in scoring position in the second and the third and a runner on first in the first and fourth. Despite the busy basepath, Tennessee found itself out of the threats by either striking out or soft contact. In fact, the Vols only had one hit through four innings.

That all changed in the fifth.

Evan Russell led off and reached second base after Florida third baseman Colby Halter spiked a ball on the throw to first off Russell’s grounder. Freshman Blake Burke was then able to hit a hard single to right to give the Vols first and third for the leadoff man Seth Stephenson.

Usually in a situation with multiple runners on and less than two outs Tennessee is looking to use its high-powered bats to break the game open. But in a tight-scoring championship game, it was the Vols’ small ball that opened the scoring. Stephenson laid down a perfect bunt that rolled along the third base line that allowed Russell to speed past and score the game’s first run.

With two on and two out, Florida made the interesting decision to intentionally walk Jordan Beck to get a lefty on lefty matchup with Drew Gilbert. It was a mistake the Gators instantly regretted.

As he has done all season, Gilbert scorched a 0-2 fastball for a line drive over Florida left fielder Wyatt Langford, who then turned to watch the ball bounce off the ball. But before he could gather himself and throw the ball in, the damage had already been done as Burke, Stephenson, and Beck had already raced around to score.

With the cold streak from the first third of the game over, the Vols offense opened up even more in the sixth. Jorel Ortega led off with a a double to left field and Russell walked. Burke hit into a fielder’s choice that moved Ortega to third and got Russel out at second. That sent Stephenson up the the plate with a runner on third once again.

This time, however, Stephenson swung the bat and sent a rocket RBI double past the third baseman to score a run. And with a runner on second and third, Luc Lipcius stepped up and doubled to right-center, scoring two and padding the Tennessee lead further.

Tennessee wasn’t the only team on Sunday to struggle scoring runs. Florida had four straight innings with a one-out single to open the game, had had runners on base in each of the first five innings. What went wrong? Camden Sewell was on the mound.

The senior right-hander dominated Florida in the SEC tournament for the second year in a row. Sewell was able to work around every one-single and a first and second jam in the fifth. He ended with five innings pitched, allowing six hits and zero runs, striking out one and walking none.

When Sewell’s day was done, it was time for Tony Vitello to turn to the bullpen. Tennessee was bale to get two scoreless innings from Will Mabrey and Mark McLaughlin before running into some trouble in the bottom of the eighth.

Flamethrower Ben Joyce entered the game before giving up a walk and a two-run home run to BT Riopelle, who squared up on a triple-digit fastball. That ended Joyce’s day and brought in midweek left-hander Zander Sechrist who gave up back-to-back hits to put runners on first and third with no outs.

Vitello then called upon left-hander Kirby Connell, who struck out Florida’s Jac Caglianone before giving up a two-out RBI single. Connell was able to escape with just the one run allowed.

With Florida starting the making of a terrific comeback, The Vols looked to the top of the ninth to create some insurance, and who else other than Drew Gilbert to do so.

The junior center fielder skied a deep fly ball to right field as he watched it scrape over the wall for a towering home run that capped off an incredible tournament performance.

Tennessee turned to their left-handed closer Redmond Walsh to end the game, but Florida made it difficult. Back-to-back one-out doubles cut the lead to four then an Ortega error allowed a runner to score to cut it to three. Walsh slammed the door with a foul out to left field to crown the Vols as 2022 SEC Tournament Champions.