KNOXVILLE, Tenn– The word “Omaha” has been used for more than one reason for the past few years in Knoxville. VFL Peyton Manning made the phrase especially famous back when he was Quarterback for the Denver Broncos, but recently all the buzz surrounding Omaha has been around the UT’s Baseball team as they looked to go back to Omaha, Nebraska for the College World Series for the second consecutive year for the first time in program history.
The Vols couldn’t get it done as they fell to Notre Dame in a winner take all game 3 on Sunday afternoon 7-3, ending a historic season in heartbreaking fashion. The Vols had opportunities throughout this series but couldn’t capitalize on enough of them to keep their season alive.
Both teams would score a run in the first inning with the Vols’ run coming off of a Luc Lipcius homer where he would break the program record for home runs in a career with his 40th, breaking a tie between him and Catcher Evan Russell. Lipcius and his fellow super senior record holder were asked about their records after the game and the message was clear. Walsh said ““Personally, the records do not mean nearly as much as the relationships and those guys out there. I’d give up every save just to have one more game with them or one more practice with them, just to have another day where we can go out and be a team, knowing that baseball is in front of us. I think the records are cool, but at the end of the day, I’d give up my records to have one more day with them.”
After Notre Dame scored on a Sac fly to tie the game at 1, enter Seth Stephenson.
Stephenson has been the leadoff man for the Vols for most of the season. The former infielder now outfielder stepped in when Jared Dickey went down and has had some timely hits for the Vols, and he continued that on Sunday. The junior started his nice day at the plate with an RBI single down the left field line that scored Jorel Ortega from 2nd and gave the Vols the lead in the 2nd.
That score would hold until Stephenson’s next at bat in the bottom of the 5th when this time he doubled down the left field line on a ball that was very similar to his first hit and that would score Cortland Lawson. Stephenson accounted for ⅔ of the Vols runs on the day and his impact on the early innings could be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, Stephenson had one of his best days as a Vol and had the Vols in a position to win into the later innings.
Burns Blazes…Until he didn’t
Chase Burns has been one of the Vols best pitchers all season. He was the one who got the start on Sunday as the Vols were in season on the line scenario and had one of their best arms available. Burns showed what he has been showing all season, a dominating performance. Through six innings Burns allowed just two hits, one run, struck out four, and only allowed one walk via a hit by pitch.
Burns trotted out for the seventh inning and continued to look almost untouchable retiring the first batter he faced and even after giving up a ground rule double to Irish first baseman Carter Putz, Burns retired Jack Zyska and just needed one more out to be guaranteed to be up at least two runs in the Eighth inning. Burns pitch count was sitting close to 90 pitches so it was fair to say that his time on the mound was coming to a close and a few hard-hit balls that went foul and the ground rule double by Putz was another rip. It showed that the Irish were starting to get a handle on Burns’ pitch mix and his stuff and were able to rip some nice hits. It was only a matter of time before they put one into play or worse over the wall…Enter David LaManna.
Notre Dame Catcher David LaManna had a runner in scoring position with 2 outs and his team on the brink of elimination down two in the top of the 7th inning and he did something about it. Poking a pitch deep to right field over the shallow wall and knotting the game at three runs a piece. The game wouldn’t stay tied for long as the very next batter, third baseman Jack Brannigan hit another homer onto the second deck of the porches in left field to untie the game for the final time.
Tennessee Head Coach Tony Vitello would finally pull Burns after the 2nd homer and would turn to a bullpen that had barely seen any work all series. Two of the Vols most seasoned veterans Kirby Connell and Redmond Walsh hadn’t seen any action all weekend, along with Camden Sewell, and Will Mabrey throwing around 20 pitches each on Friday making them available as well. This move looked to really cost the Vols at first after the back-to-back home runs, but ultimately the relievers were hit hard as well with Kirby Connell and Camden Sewell combining to give up three runs in the eighth and send Tennessee home with a four run loss.
Tony Vitello after the game alluded to this “They (Notre Dame) did a lot of the things right that I didn’t do right today. This job requires big boy decisions, and I got some things wrong today.
Though they had opportunities to even this game up, Irish pitcher Jack Findlay didn’t allow any dramatics.
The Vols have been known for late game heroics, for the last two seasons. Whether it was Drew Gilbert hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to walk it off against Wright State in the 2021 Knoxville Regional, or an incredible comeback in Gainesville this season to sweep the Gators. The Vols have many examples of theatrics, and after Notre Dame took the lead in the seventh, many Vol fans were expecting another incredible moment, for the final time, enter Jack Findlay.
This was the second time this weekend that the Vols had faced Findlay, he pitched in Notre Dame’s friday night win over the Vols and was solid, but on Sunday he dominated Tennessee’s record setting lineup. Findlay only allowed one hit and only three total Vols to reach base in five innings of work. He kept a Tennessee lineup that had made opponents look silly all season, look helpless as the Vols struck out, popped out, and grounded out in the later innings to end this game and the Vols national championship hopes. Findlay almost quadrupled Notre Dame’s starter in terms of pitch count. Throwing 122 pitches, and outside of a fielding error in the 8th and a walk in the 9th, Findlay didn’t allow any Vols to do any type of damage in the last three innings as even those baserunners would be erased via a caught stealing and a game ending double play.
The Vols never got any momentum going and there was never any of the Tennessee mojo that we had seen all season. The bats were cold, the stadium was quieter than it has been since early February outside of the upper left hand of Notre Dame fans that were louder than ever. The stadium was in a state of shock, and it will be the lasting memory of a season full of incredible moments.
Final Final Thoughts
The 2022 Tennessee baseball team is one that will be remembered fondly but the sting of today will live on for Vols fans long after the confetti has fallen, and a champion is crowned in Omaha. While Tennessee will be playing baseball again this season, it will be without program staples such as Luc Lipcius, Evan Russell, and Redmond Walsh at the very least and with guys like Jordan Beck, Drew Gilbert, Blade Tidwell, Trey Lipscomb, and Jorel Ortega all eligible to declare for the MLB draft. With the first 3 being bonafide first round picks. It won’t be the same Tennessee team that we saw break records, flip bats (and certain other things), and captured the hearts of so many of the Vol faithful that entered Lindsey Nelson Stadium, but the Vols will be back, and every Vol fan knows the saying “there’s always next year.”
While the fans may feel horrible about this loss and the season ending, no one feels this loss more than Tony Vitello. “They say time heals all wounds. I don’t know who they are, but we’ll see.” This loss will be something that Vitello and the remaining members think about until they play their next game in February 2023 and beyond, and the Vols will no doubt be looking for redemption when the time comes.