Tennessee’s Three Home Runs Help Clinch Series Over Gonzaga

Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics.

By Joseph Bonanno

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Tennessee clinched the series over Gonzaga in a 7-2 victory on Saturday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The Vols (10-2) launched three home runs to support the pitching staff’s dominant performance in the win.

Despite the solid stat line, Tennessee’s starter, sophomore RHP Chase Burns, ran into some early trouble against Gonzaga (1-9). After a perfect inning from Burns to start the game, the Bulldogs found some rhythm at the plate in the second inning. A pair of one-out hits put runners in scoring position then, after a strikeout, Gonzaga’s sophomore right fielder Sam Canton drove a double into the right-center gap to score two runs.

Burns settled in after that, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless innings before the Vols made their call to the bullpen, ending his night with 6 1/3 innings pitched, five hits, two runs, one walk, and eight strikeouts. Even with the second-inning struggles, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello felt his starter was close to perfect.

“Cudos to (Canton). The guy took the best swing of the night minus Blake Burke,” said Vitello. “You remove that Canton ball that he smoked up the middle for two RBIs, he was about as good as it gets. Both him and (Dollander) were able to get into a rhythm and when they didn’t have it rolling and had to challenge themselves, both guys worked out of trouble. (It was) a good outing again for Burns.”

Offensively, Tennessee had an early opportunity to take the lead with the bases loaded and only one out in the first inning. Despite the favorable situation, the Vols failed to drive in any runs and Gonzaga jumped on their early advantage the very next frame. However, with Burns locked in, Tennessee’s offense had a chance to come back.

In the third inning, the Vols’ got runners on the corners after Christian Moore walked and Blake Burke hit a ground-rule double into right field. Tennessee’s senior right-fielder, Griffin Merritt, hit a one-out sacrifice fly to bring home Moore and get the Vols on the board for the first time.

Then the ball started to fly for the Vols.

Junior center-fielder Kyle Booker launched a 418-foot solo home run to right field, his first of the season, to tie the game at two in the fifth inning. Tennessee’s offense continued to heat up in the sixth as Jared Dickey and Christian Moore drew back-to-back one-out walks. That’s when Blake Burke launched his seventh home run of the year, a 423-foot, three-run shot over right field to give Tennessee its first lead of the game.

In his last four games, Burke has hit .611 with three home runs and 14 RBIs and has been far and beyond Tennessee’s best hitter. And Vols’ head coach Tony Vitello is just enjoying his time watching his sophomore first baseman at the plate.

“It’s fun to watch him play (because) he’s really found a way to play the game hard and be intense,” said Vitello. “People act like it’s life and death but this is recess… and he kind of approaches it almost perfectly. He’s into it and prepared as well as anybody, then he gets out there and he’s playing like Luc (Lipcius) used to.”

While Burke’s home run gave the Vols the lead, they weren’t done there. Zane Denton walked following Burke’s homer. That brought up Merrit, who then proceeded to hit a home run off of the batter’s eye in center field, his second longball of the year. While it was another slow start, Tennessee found its rhythm offensively in the late innings once again.

“I think the motto of our offense is ‘we’re always one inning away,'” said Merrit. “Something nice about this team is there is no panic. We’re not getting worried about being down and we don’t mind scoring late.”

While Tennessee’s offense found some more late-game magic, the Vols’ bullpen continued its dominance. Senior LHP Kirby Connell (W, 1-0) picked up his first win of the season after pitching 2/3 of an inning with one strikeout. Senior RHP Seth Halvorsen came into the game in the eighth and closed things out to cap off the phenomenal pitching performance. After the second inning, the Vols held Gonzaga scoreless with just three hits and a walk as the only baserunners.

Burke led the offense once again going 3-5 with a double, a home run, and three RBIs. Booker added a pair of hits of his own and Merritt picked up three RBIs.

Tennessee will go for the sweep over Gonzaga and its 11th win in a row on Sunday with the first pitch set for 1:00 P.M. EST and can be viewed on the SEC Network+. The Vols will send out sophomore RHP Drew Beam (2-0, 0.00 ERA) in his third start to face off against the Bulldogs’ freshman RHP Nate Deschryver (0-1, 7.50 ERA) in his second start.