Tennessee Earns Trip to College World Series with Six-Homer Day
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - On Sunday, Tennessee beat Louisiana State 15-6 to sweep the Knoxville Super Regional and clinch a spot in the College World Series for the first time since 2005.
Saturday’s 4-2 win featured all of two well-struck hits for the Volunteers, runs scored on two fielder’s choices, a groundout and a bloop single, and precisely zero home runs.
In other words, Tennessee won a game in a way that it hasn’t had to very much lately. Sunday’s win, however, was a return to form, as the Vols clubbed six home runs, accounting for 11 of the 15 runs scored.
Third baseman Jake Rucker had two of them. He got the scoring started in the first inning with a two-run homer that left the park in a hurry to left-center field. That helped a hearty but somewhat more subdued Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd come alive. Two innings later, he added a solo shot, an opposite-field laser to right field.
If the first one was perhaps just anecdotal evidence, his second home run seemed to hammer home that it was likely to be a more offensive game.
“I don’t think you want to ever predict you’re putting up a touchdown or anything like that, but you saw a looseness there that made you more comfortable,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said.
Further evidence of that was the way LSU was forced to handle its ace Landon Marceaux. The righthander started and lasted just three innings before being lifted. After shouldering a heavy workload last week in the Eugene Regional, it was clear Marceaux wasn’t at his best and the Tigers pulled the ripcord on his outing earlier than they would have liked.
“Landon, that kid’s got so much courage and so much guts,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “What he did last weekend was unbelievable. But I could tell pretty quickly that he just didn't have his normal stuff. He looked like he was out of gas right from the very beginning.”
The LSU bullpen didn’t do much to slow down the home run barrage for Tennessee, and if anything, the Volunteers pressed the gas pedal even harder.
Catcher Connor Pavolony hit one out to left-center in the fourth to push the UT lead to 5-2. In the fifth, center fielder Drew Gilbert yanked a solo shot into the bullpen in right field to make it 6-2 and Jordan Beck crushed a three-run homer over everything in left field to make it 9-2 on the way to a six-run inning that made it 11-2. For good measure, left fielder Evan Russell added a two-run blast in the eighth to make sure things really got out of hand.
After a game on Saturday where scoring runs felt like trying to squeeze water out of a stone, it was a nice change of pace for things to come a bit easier this time around.
“I think it's pretty awesome to see (our) team not having one way of beating you,” Russell said. “It gives us a lot of confidence in the locker room to go out. You never know how you're going to win, but if we find a way, you know, it's pretty special. With this group, you better be ready to watch, because we're always on the hunt to do some pretty cool things.”
Early, LSU looked like it was ready to go blow-for-blow with Tennessee, as Dylan Crews had a pair of solo homers in the first three innings, and it got two-run homers from Tre Morgan and Jordan Drost late in the game. All told, the Tigers scored six runs in seven innings against Vols righthander Blade Tidwell, but it ended up being far too little and far too late.
“They hit the ball better than we did today and really pretty much did everything better than we did, and they deserved to win,” Mainieri said.
They say time flies, but tell that to the Tennessee faithful that waited 14 years to get back into a regional in 2019 and 16 to get back to the College World Series this year.
Let’s skip the cliche where we look back at 2005 and compare pop culture touchstones and the relative price of gasoline as a way to show just how long ago that was, but suffice it to say it was long enough ago that there were many more young people wearing puka shell necklaces in the stands of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium during the CWS at that time.
The more effective measurement is to think about how much Tennessee baseball history has come and gone since then.
Luke Hochevar, the star pitcher on the 2005 team, has been officially retired for nearly three years now after what any reasonable person would call a lengthy professional career. Chase Headley and J.P. Arencibia, two other stars on that roster, have similarly come and gone from the professional ranks.
It was six years before future big leaguer Zack Godley arrived in Knoxville and nine years before Nick Senzel, the highest draft pick in Tennessee baseball history, made it to campus. And of course, Vitello is the fourth different coach to set up shop in the Tennessee dugout since then.
In his four seasons at the helm, Vitello has been focused on the little steps that build up to getting a team into this position.
“We never talked about Omaha a ton, but we got to get a little bit better,” Vitello said. “We got to repaint our weight room. We got to fix a closet, and as crazy as that sounds, that's kind of just been an inch-by-inch thing.”
The Vols are headed to Omaha now, and that’s something to celebrate, but Vitello is quick to say that it’s not the finish line.
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“I think it's hard to put into words, going to Omaha,” he said. “You know, we'll be dancing in the streets like crazy tonight, I hope. So that's the present-moment thing. I think the next thing is the most important thing, that means we have a chance to make it to the national championship series. You’ve got two groups of four, and it's two different tournaments. The winners of each of those tournaments will meet in the middle for that championship series. We've got a chance to win another tournament, which we were almost able to do in Hoover. And we've won our last two. We'll move on to the next one and it'll be a fun group to be in that environment and take on that challenge (with).”
The Knoxville community has really wrapped its arms around this team, as shown by the raucous crowds the last two days. Some have suggested that part of it is that Tennessee fans, with the football program’s relative futility and the basketball program’s struggles to get deep into the NCAA Tournament, are desperate to get behind a team that has a chance to do something special.
Maybe that’s part of it, but the swagger, bravado and style of play put forth by this group, starting with Vitello and filtering down all the way through the roster, is undoubtedly part of the love affair as well.
Winning in Omaha is a different deal than winning anywhere else. Tennessee fans will surely travel to support the team, but there will no longer be the home-field advantage it has enjoyed the last two weekends. And TD Ameritrade Park is notorious for turning big home runs into fly ball outs at the warning track. What’s worked lately just might not be quite as effective starting next weekend.
But against LSU, we saw evidence of the Volunteers being flexible enough to win games in a variety of ways, and perhaps more importantly, one thing that always translates no matter where you play is belief that you’re the best team out there, and Tennessee certainly plays like it believes that to be the case.