Merritt Strikes Again, Tennessee Walks Off Mississippi State

Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics

By Joseph Bonanno

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mississippi State’s solo home run in the top of the ninth capped off a six-run comeback effort for the Bulldogs, however, No. 24 Tennessee’s Griffin Merritt had other plans.

The Vols’ senior outfielder launched a solo home run on the second pitch he saw in the bottom of the ninth to give Tennessee (28-14, 9-10 SEC) the 8-7 walk-off win over the Bulldogs (24-18, 6-13 SEC) on Thursday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. It was both Merritt’s and the Vols’ second straight walk-off home run in a series opener, as the senior outfielder repeated his efforts from Tennessee’s win over Vanderbilt last Friday.

For Merritt, the bottom of the ninth is not different than in any other at-bat. And he credits his age and experience to his recent successes when the Vols have needed him most.

“Probably because I’m old and I calm down. I’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of at-bats. When I was younger, I remember going up there and you would’ve thought I was going to break the bat in half I was so amped up. But now, I’m just able to calm myself down,” Merritt said. “If you prepare yourself the right way, you’re not nervous. You’re more excited. I think people tense up and try to do much because they feel like they’re not prepared, but I try to make sure I never feel like that.”

Merritt’s experience and calming presence have been huge for the Vols, especially in Thursday night’s win over Mississippi State, a game in which Tennessee blew a 7-1 lead in the final two innings of the game.

After escaping a bases-loaded jam and only allowing one run in the top of the first, Tennessee quickly found its groove. A trio of singles capped off by a Jared Dickey RBI base knock tied the game at one for the Vols. Dylan Dreiling gave Tennessee the lead with an RBI groundout before Zane Denton extended the lead with an RBI single of his own.

The Vols added another three runs in the fifth after Christian Scott drove a two-RBI single down the third base line and Maui Ahuna continued his hot streak at the plate with a RBI double to give Tennessee the 7-1 lead.

After battling through some rough waters in the first, escaping that bases-loaded jam, Tennessee starter, junior Andrew Lindsey, held the Bulldogs scoreless with just three hits before running into some more trouble in the sixth, where he gave up three hits including a two-run home run that brought Mississippi State within four. The 6-foot-3 right-hander continued his success in his new role as the Vols series-opener starter and finding ways to battle through early adversity in games.

“He’s out there for a lot of reasons for us, but the No. 1 thing that clicked for us when we were going to try and rearrange things a little bit was toughness. And there you go,” Vols’ head coach Tony Vitello said.

As for the Tennessee bullpen, it was a less-than-great outing that we are used to seeing. Kirby Connell gave up a solo home run to lead off the seventh inning before being replaced by Aaron Combs, who gave up a two-RBI double to bring the Bulldogs within one run. That’s when Vitello went to his best bullpen weapon, sophomore Chase Burns, who got Tennessee out of the jam with a strikeout.

Burns pitched a clean eighth but was tagged with the game-tying home run in the ninth before sitting down three straight Bulldog batters. While he didn’t earn his first save of the season, Burns was able to keep Tennessee in the game long enough for Merritt’s heroics to kick in, earning him his fourth win of the season and proving once again that Vitello’s decision to move him to the bullpen was a good one.

“He takes really good care of his body and he can be trusted in a lot of situations and it was pretty evident tonight— we had a big situation unraveling, a good offense and we were starting to lose our composure a little bit and he came in and calmed the seas,” Vitello said.

Following being swept at Arkansas, Tennessee has bounced back, using Thursday night’s win to extend its win streak to five games, the Vols’ longest streak since winning five straight after being swept by Missouri to open SEC play.

In this five-game win streak, Tennessee has had a come-from-behind walk-off, a run-rule blowout, a comfortable five-run win, an 18-run bludgeoning, and now a blown lead walk-off. While not every game has been perfect for the Vols, they have managed to find different ways to win, which is the best experience they could ask for.

“It’s just like in your golf bag, you want all different kinds of clubs… you don’t want to have just a driver and a putter,” Merritt said. “We wanna be able to win games where we have to execute, where we blow them out, where we don’t hit and we can pitch well enough to win, where we can make defensive plays, where we can win late. And I think we’re starting to stack those clubs in our bag that are gonna come in use when you get down to the end of the year and crazy stuff happens and you’re familiar with situations.”

Tennessee will look to extend its win streak even further and go for its second straight series win on Friday, with the first pitch between the Vols and Bulldogs scheduled for 6:30 P.M. EST. The Vols are expected to send junior right-hander Chase Dollander (5-4, 3.81 ERA) while Mississippi State has not announced a starter for game two of the series.