KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 18 Tennessee and Belmont waited through an hour and 27-minute weather delay after the second inning before the Vols took the in-state midweek battle 9-5 in their final regular season home game of the season on Tuesday night.
It was a game that was moved up due to the threat of inclement weather and delayed at the start due to lightning before being finished on the wet turf at Lindsey Nelson Stadium as the Vols hosted Senior Day for six players, including Zane Denton, Kirby Connell, Ethan Payne, Griffin Merritt, Logan Chambers, and Seth Halvorsen.
The Vols got on the board first in the second inning, scoring three runs on a pair of two-out hits from Charlie Taylor and Maui Ahuna. That’s when the rain started, sending the game into the delay at 6:33 p.m. and not be restarted until 8:00 p.m. EST. While the game had every chance to be canceled, both teams stuck it out.
“I’m very happy we played as much as we did,” Vols’ head coach Tony Vitello said. “Just wanna play man. Wanna find out who is better is part of it, but on a Tuesday this late in the year, to me, it’s kind of more about keeping guys involved and on track to develop.”
The rain delay worked in favor of the Bruins’ offense. Tennessee brought in LHP Jacob Bimbi to pitch out of the delay, who then gave up a walk and a double to start the inning. Bimbi did get a pair of strikeouts before loading the bases on another walk, which is when Tennessee went to senior LHP Kirby Connell out of the pen. Belmont tagged Connell with a pair of two-RBI hits to replicate their own version of two-out magic and take the lead over the Vols.
That lead wouldn’t last long, as Zane Denton kept the two-out theme going in the bottom of the third and launched a two-run home run to center field to regain the Vols’ lead. The homer was Denton’s 12th on the year and drove in his team-leading 48th RBI of the season.
Belmont tied the game in the top of the fourth, but the Vols’ offense came right back, scoring a run in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings to retake and extend a lead they would never give up. Tennessee’s offense was led by Ahuna, who went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles, Christian Scott, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI, and Blake Burke, who went 2-for-4 with a triple.
On the mound, the Bruins’ surging offense was shut down when Tennessee brought in sophomore RHP Hollis Fanning, who went three innings of two-hit, scoreless baseball. Fanning, who had just 10 innings under his belt prior to Tuesday’s game, struck out seven batters in a row.
In 13 appearances in 2023, Fanning has 24 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched, which is 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and would be good for second-best in the NCAA if he had the minimum innings required. Fanning has also only allowed just 10 hits and one earned run in 13 innings, which is good for a 0.69 ERA. Despite a limited role, Tuesday showed Fanning’s ability to be a valuable asset to Tennessee’s bullpen.
“He was outstanding. Basically made it impossible to take him out of the game,” Vitello said. “I was going to ask him how he was feeling, but with the radar gun and the way he was throwing it, it kind of made it look like he was fresh.”
With Tuesday’s win, the Vols finished with a 33-5 record at home in the 2023 regular season after posting a 34-3 regular season home record in 2022.
Tennessee will finish out their regular season on the road as they head to Columbia, South Carolina to take on the 13th-ranked Gamecocks (37-14, 15-11 SEC), who have lost nine of their last 12 games including being swept by Kentucky and losing a series to Arkansas.
The three-game series will start on Thursday at 7 p.m. EST as the Vols look at one last chance to boost their resume in the regular season. Tennessee is currently ranked at No. 23 in RBI according to D1 Baseball and is on the fence of being able to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a big challenge for Tennessee, which is just 2-11 in road games this season.