By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Looking to start off the second half of SEC play on the right foot, Tennessee launched four home runs to battle back and walk off No. 4 Vanderbilt in a 4-3, twelfth-inning win on Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Down two runs and heading into its last chance, Tennessee (24-14, 6-10 SEC) got life from redshirt-freshman Kavares Tears, who led off the ninth with a 414-foot solo home run to dead center to cut the lead to one. Then, with two outs and a 1-2 count, freshman Dylan Dreiling, pinch-hitting for the Vols, tied the game to send it to extras.
With his team’s new life, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello made the only move that made sense, going to his new bullpen weapon: sophomore right-hander Chase Burns.
On Thursday, Vitello mentioned how much more “relaxed” Burns seemed in his new bullpen role. And it was clearly working for his confidence, as the Gallatin, Tenn. native shoved against the Commodores (29-9, 13-3 SEC) in extra innings, earning just his second win in conference play.
Burns struck out five of the first six batters he faced and held Vanderbilt scoreless with just one hit in three innings while striking out seven. His effort was enough to give the Tennessee offense a chance.
“His outing was impressive enough I don’t have words for it,” said Vitello.
The Vols led off the tenth inning with a double from sophomore utility man Jared Dickey, but failed to bring him home for the win. But Burns’ dominance on the mound kept the Vols in the game long enough for senior outfielder Griffin Merritt to hit a walk-off home run off the scoreboard in the twelfth inning to give Tennessee the 4-3 win in game one of the in-state battle with Vanderbilt.
“It felt great first of all,” said Merritt. “(Nick) Maldonado had just been throwing a lot of cutters. I was expecting it after I grounded out on it in the last at-bat. He showed the fastball up and I knew he was probably going to come back with the cutter. I stayed on it and stayed behind it instead of spinning off. Off the bat, I thought it was out.”
Merritt’s heroics were possible because Tennessee’s entire pitching staff helped lead the charge with a dominant performance on the mound. Junior right-hander Andrew Lindsey had a tall task on Friday night, making his second start for Tennessee against a tough Vanderbilt team. Despite the challenge, the 6-foot-3 junior delivered.
Lindsey, a New Johnsonville, Tenn. native, went 6 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits while striking out a career-high 10 batters. Lindsey made his first start of the season for the Vols in game one against Arkansas, and after Friday, has cemented his job as the Vols’ weekend frontman.
“Obviously, it kind of carries a little bit different of a load with it but just trying to stay focused on the one pitch that you are throwing in the moment and taking care of the batters and innings that you get to have,” said Lindsey on his new role for the Vols.
Vanderbilt took the lead in the third inning after Lindsey gave up back-to-back leadoff singles before striking out Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Davis Diaz. However, Lindsey couldn’t get past Commodores’ star right-fielder RJ Shreck, who hit a two-out single to right field to drive in a pair of runs.
The Commodores got back-to-back runners on again in the fifth inning, plating another run on Bradfield Jr.’s RBI fielder’s choice. Vanderbilt loaded the bases with two outs after back-to-back walks, but Lindsey was able to strike out Vanderbilt’s RJ Austin to fend off the threat and hold the Vandy lead at two.
Lindsey was replaced by sophomore lefty Jake Fitzgibbons, who saw just one batter before Vitello handed the keys over to senior right-hander Camden Sewell. The Cleveland, Tenn. native was the anchor the Vols’ needed, throwing 2 1/3 scoreless innings before handing the ball off to Burns to finish the Commodores off.
Despite the strong effort on the mound, the Tennessee offense started off pretty slow. The Vols’ got on the board early thanks to a Zane Denton solo home run in the second inning, his ninth long ball of the year. But until the ninth inning, Tennessee had only managed two hits and was 0-11 with runners on base, one week after going 4-43 at the plate in Arkansas’ sweep over the Vols.
Tennessee had several chances, bringing the tying run to the plate in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, but just could not bring any runners home to score until the pair of home runs tied the game in the ninth inning.
Tennessee’s victory over Vanderbilt was a much-needed win for the Vols, whose postseason seemed to be slipping out of its hands. Friday night was the first game of the “second half” and starting it off on the right foot was a must for Vols.
Part of Tennessee’s fresh start is finally getting on solid ground with its starters, and Andrew Lindsey has given it just that. Despite taking the loss against Arkansas, Lindsey has shown he is every bit as capable to start on Friday nights in the SEC in his first two starts of the season. Having confidence in its Friday starter will do wonders for the rest of Tennessee’s rotation as well as in the offense.
Speaking of the offense, the Vols’ showed more fire at the plate in the final four innings of Friday night’s win than it seems they have in the first 15 games of conference play. However, there are still some glaring issues, starting with the fact that Tennessee couldn’t bring any of their baserunners in with a hit. Living and dying by the long ball won’t be a winning way for this Tennessee team, but using Friday night’s success as a stepstool to finding their offensive confidence back should help move the Vols in the right direction.
For the first time since the Texas A&M series, Tennessee will go for the series win as the Vols and Vanderbilt get set to make a quick turnaround and square off for game two of the series on Saturday at noon EST. The Vols will send out junior RHP Chase Dollander (4-4, 4.18 ERA) to face off against the Commodores, who have not announced a game-two starter yet.