KNOXVILLE, Tenn—The No. 1 ranked Tennessee Volunteers haven’t lost much this season, but all of a sudden find themselves one loss away from their season being ended after an 8-6 loss to Notre Dame Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Irish punished the Vols for every mistake they have made and never allowed the Vols to gain any real momentum in this one.
Early Pitching Woes
A big-time strength for Tennessee has been their pitching this season. The Vols have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country, with multiple high ranking MLB draft prospects, as well as seasoned SEC veterans sprinkled throughout the staff. This staff has kept the Vols in a lot of games where their offense got off to a late start. That was not the case in this one as Notre Dame homered in each of the first four innings.
The Irish came out swinging from the jump, as they went yard on Vols’ starter Blade Tidwell. The sophomore right hander had what might go down as the worst start of his collegiate career. Tidwell was only able to go three innings, where he allowed seven hits, five earned runs which included three home runs from Carter Putz, Jared Miller, and Jack Zyska, and struck out three. Tidwell entered Friday night with the lowest ERA among the Vols starters sitting at a 2.00 ERA, and he exited with a 3.86 ERA, he also picked up his second loss of the season as he now sits at 3-2. After a strong showing last week in the regional opener, it wasn’t Tidwell’s best day when the Vols really needed it to be.
Lefty Will Mabrey entered the game on Friday night in a very similar situation to what he was in on Sunday night. The Vols starter was only able to go three innings and Tennessee was in a sizeable hole.
However, the outcome was very different this time around. Mabrey was only able to pitch for 2/3 of an inning and gave up three hits, and three earned runs all coming home on a Jacob Brannigan three-run homer to left field. All of a sudden, the Vols’ deficit sat at seven runs and they were in desperate need of someone to calm the storm. Who better in this type of emergency than the Volunteer Firefighter himself, Ben Joyce.
Joyce calms the storm
Ben Joyce came into an impossible situation for his Super Regional debut, down seven runs and in a game that was on the brink of blowout territory. The Vols needed multiple innings out of Joyce, and he delivered with one of his best performances of the season. Joyce was able to go the longest out of any Vols’ pitcher and gave them an opportunity to claw back into the game. Joyce threw three and one third innings allowing two hits, no runs, and struck out five.
He was nearly untouchable and showed an ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and execute on his big time fastball. While Joyce was in the game he saw the Vols deficit shrink from seven all the way down to three by the time he exited. He took back control for the Vols and helped them gain some momentum into Saturday’s game, ultimately the Vols had chances to win this game, but the early hole was too big to climb out of.
Offense unable to capitalize
The Vols had trouble capitalizing with runners in this past Sunday’s regional final. It didn’t seem to matter as the Vols offense capitalized in the later innings and were able to keep the Vols unbeaten in postseason play.
This was bound to catch up with Tennessee and it did on Friday night. The Irish put up eight runs in the first four innings, but never scored again. This gave the Vols a lot of time to crawl out of the hole that was dug in the early innings. The Vols started the comeback when Trey Lipscomb and Jorel Ortega homered in the fourth and sixth innings respectively to cut the Irish lead to five. The lead would stay at five until the seventh when Trey Lipscomb hit a two run double that bounced off an infielders glove and made it into left field. The Vols would score off another solo homer, this time from Jordan Beck in the ninth inning to cut the deficit to two but that is as close as the Vols would get to completing the comeback.
The Vols had more opportunities in this game but just didn’t capitalize the Vols went 1-16 with runners on base and an abysmal 1-10 with runners in scoring position. That just isn’t going to cut it and that showed. The Vols have to be better with runners on base, hard to think how differently this game could have been with runners on base for any of the trio of home runs. It won’t get an easier as the Vols will be without one of their most reliable players for Saturday’s game.
Gilbert and Anderson toss
It started how many at bats have started for Drew Gilbert, but would end unlike any other. Gilbert took the first pitch for ball one and took pitch number two which Gilbert believed to be ball two. Home plate umpire Kellen Levy saw it differently and called strike one. Gilbert turned to the umpire in disbelief and turned away and said something and suddenly, his day was done. Gilbert was ejected and Frank Anderson also got tossed as he came out of the dugout in Gilbert’s defense. Fans rained boos and debris onto the playing field, but that changed nothing as Gilbert was ejected from the game and is suspended for Saturday’s game two.
This is a huge blow for the Vols as Gilbert had been one of the hottest Tennessee hitters at the plate since the SEC tournament where he was named MVP. Gilbert was the SEC leader in batting average in the regular season and is an emotional leader for the Vols.
The head umpire for the game Billy Van Rapphorst gave this statement postgame on the incident.
“Tennessee’s Drew Gilbert argued several pitches during the top of the second inning, steaming in from centerfield. To begin the next inning I talked to the player between innings, warning him to direct his comments only to his team, not our crew or the other team. He said O.K. and that he just gets excited.”
“During the fifth inning following strike one, Tennessee batter Gilbert yelled an expletive, followed by another expletive as he walked out of the box and was subsequently ejected.”
Gilbert’s ejection is huge and his leadership along with his bat will be missed in the game two rematch on Saturday afternoon. It is going to be interesting to see the adjustments Vols head coach Tony Vitello makes without Gilbert in the lineup.
The Vols had a rare occurrence on Friday night, where they ran into a case of too little too late. As the Vols were able to close the gap in the later innings, but ultimately were not able to complete the comeback against the Irish.
Tennessee will have to figure things out against the Irish on Saturday as they fight for their season Saturday at 2 p.m. E.T. at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, and will have to do it without one of the staples of their outfield in Drew Gilbert.