By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Blake Burke’s sixth-inning, three-run home run helped complete No. 24 Tennessee’s comeback in the 12-8 series-clinching win over Mississippi State on Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Vols (29-14, 10-10 SEC) trailed by as many as five runs before blasting four home runs to come back and down the Bulldogs (24-19, 6-14 SEC).
Despite dealing with an illness all week, Tennessee sent out junior right-hander Chase Dollander to start Friday night’s game. Dollander was greeted with a rough first inning, getting stuck behind a pair of weekly hit singles before Mississippi State’s freshman outfielder Dakota Jordan launched a three-run home run to give the Bulldogs an early 3-0 lead.
Despite the trouble, Dollander managed to get through the second inning scoreless and only gave up a solo shot to Hunter Hines in the fourth. He exited the game after three innings, the shortest outing of his career.
“It was this morning (the decision to start him). We had talked about what are we going to do if he’s not able to go,” Tony Vitello said. “I just needed to do a better job of managing his situation, and when I say that, part of it might’ve been us saying ‘Yeah, I know you want the ball, but we’re going to supersede you.”
Vitello’s decision-making with the pitchers was a bit questionable Friday night, as he said in his own words.
After Dollander was done, Vitello brought in junior left-hander Zander Sechrist, who had a really strong fourth inning, sitting down the Bulldogs in order with a pair of strikeouts. However, with a pair of lefties due up the next inning, instead of sticking with the lefty Sechrist, Vitello decided to go to junior right-hander Bryce Jenkins, who immediately gave up back-to-back hits, including a two-run home run to Hines, his third of the series.
“I think our ideal inning was for him (Zander Sechrist) to go out there and get those three guys out and then we were going to move on to someone else. Our mind had been made up ahead of time that here’s the plan to get us to Camden Sewell,” Vitello said. “You have to be careful scripting things and who knows what happens. Bryce Jenkins has been tremendous for us against left-handed hitters but if anything I think it’ll just make Zander hungrier the next time out there and for us it makes us feel really good that that ceiling is not reached.”
Thankfully for Vitello and the Vols, the offense continued its recent streak of getting Tennessee back into games that seem to be already out of hand.
Christian Moore got Tennesse on the board with a two-run home run in the fourth inning. Then, after Mississippi State scored three in the fifth inning, Tennessee’s offense answered back. Jared Dickey launched a two-run home run of his own before a Moore double brought home Burke following a fielding error. Griffin Merritt, Tennessee’s game-one hero, brought Tennessee within a run with an RBI single that scored Moore the next at-bat.
The Bulldogs got a run back to make it a two-run game after a Burke throwing error in the sixth inning. In the bottom half of the sixth, Tennessee got the run back thanks to another Bulldogs’ error, however, Burke still made up for his mistake, blasting a 115 mph, three-run shot off the Lindsey Nelson batter’s eye to take the Vols’ first lead of the game.
Even with the lead, Tennessee needed to find a way to settle the boat that was the Vols’ shaky bullpen on Friday. The solution? Fifth-year senior Camden Sewell.
“We wanted to get to a situation where Cam could throw six outs for us with the game on the line,” Vitello said. “We were hoping it’d be the eighth and ninth. Obviously came in earlier in a big jam and what he did after was incredible.”
The 6-foot-4 right-hander shut the Bulldogs down. Sewell retired 10 of the 12 batters he faced, struck out seven, and held Mississippi State hitless over the final 3 ⅓ innings of the game. His dominance on the mound helped lead the way for Tennessee’s offense to score six unanswered runs and take the series over the Bulldogs.
Burke led the way for the Tennessee offense, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs. Moore had a solid day at the plate as well, going 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs. The Vols continued its hot situational hitting streak, going 5-for-13 with two outs and 7-of-18 with runners on base.
The recent uptick in situational hitting has led to what is now a six-game win streak for the Vols. It’s also helped Tennessee win back-to-back SEC series for the first time this season and has got the Vols back to .500 in league play after the 5-10 start. And for Vitello, that starts with the team’s approach.
“I think there’s been more of a team at-bat approach, and that doesn’t come from any one conversation or plan or anything we’ve done. It just seems that guys have had enough early on with not having success. So, what do we need to do to have success? Just find a way,” Vitello said. “What do I have to do to get to the next pitch and help our team win? Certainly helps to be loose, but that part, in particular, comes from the guys wanting to come together as a group and find a way to do whatever it takes for everyone to come together.”
Tennessee will look to make it seven in a row and back-to-back SEC sweeps in game three on Saturday, with first pitch scheduled for 2 p.m. EST on ESPNU. The Vols will send out sophomore right-hander Drew Beam (5-2, 3.40 ERA) to face off against the Bulldogs’ ambidextrous freshman pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje (3-2, 5.58 ERA).