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Tennessee Opens Super Regional with Gritty Win Over LSU



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - In front of a raucous crowd of 4,400, Tennessee scratched and clawed its way to a 4-2 win over Louisiana State to open the Knoxville Super Regional and put itself one win away from a trip to the College World Series for the first time since 2005.

The energy that permeated Lindsey Nelson Stadium during the regional here last weekend was present again  Saturday, and if anything, it was turned up three or four notches.

Three hours before first pitch, the line to get into the stadium, with some fans wearing “Vitello for President” shirts, started behind the main entrance directly behind home plate and ran all the way up the distance of the right field line to the foul pole. It was nearly as long down the left field line, but that group was mixed in with the group enjoying the street party Tennessee was throwing in that area, complete with a movie theater-sized screen to show the game for all those who couldn’t get into the stadium.

The presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of full-voiced LSU fans only added to the atmosphere. Chants of “L-S-U” popped up here and there, always quickly drowned out by “V-O-L-S” chants or quick renditions of “Rocky Top,” as if the chants from LSU fans were fires that the Tennessee faithful were rushing to put out.

It was a football-like atmosphere that very few places can produce for baseball. It was a tinderbox of emotion and noise that only grew once the game got going.

However, a number of things threatened to bring the energy down early on. After a bright and sunny Saturday morning and afternoon, a steady rain began to fall in the second inning Saturday night, sending a number of fans heading for cover.

In the rain, LSU third baseman Cade Doughty crushed a solo homer to right to put the Tigers on top 1-0. And after the Volunteers went down in order in the bottom of the second, the players were taken off the field for a lightning delay.

But all of that didn’t do anything to tamp down the atmosphere.

“I don’t know how you beat that environment, other than keep the rain away,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “Although the rain seemed to stoke the fire a little bit with the people.”

The team responded as well. On the first play of the game after the resumption in the third, Tennessee second baseman Max Ferguson robbed LSU catcher Alex Milazzo of a single on a diving play up the middle and righthander Chad Dallas struck out four over the next two frames, including striking out the side in the fourth. Every strike in the inning was cheered as if it were the last strike of the game.

Offensively, the Vols also came alive for the first time in the at-bat after the resumption. Right fielder Jordan Beck led off the inning with a double into the left-center gap, moved to third on a groundout by DH Pete Derkay and scored on an RBI groundout by catcher Connor Pavolony.

The energy in the stadium even stayed high as LSU began to wrestle control in the middle innings, although at this point, some of it was probably nervous energy.

Ma’Khail Hilliard really settled in nicely. After giving up the run in the third, he threw a scoreless fourth and fifth inning, in the latter frame stranding a runner on second base.

“All of his pitches were working pretty well, keeping the hitters off balance,” Tennessee third baseman Rucker said of Hilliard. “He didn’t really have anything overpowering, but all of his pitches move pretty good and that just allowed us to not be able to hit him that well.”

The Tigers also scratched a run across in the sixth when Pavolony threw the ball into left field trying to catch Drew Bianco stealing third, which allowed Bianco to score.

All the faith the Tennessee faithful showed throughout, even as things got tense, was rewarded with a breakthrough sixth inning for the Volunteers as lefthander Javen Coleman came on in relief of Hilliard.

After a leadoff strikeout by Liam Spence, Ferguson drew a walk. Rucker hit a ground-ball double into the left field corner, which along with Beck’s double earlier was one of only two truly hard-hit balls for Tennessee in the game.

That brought center fielder Drew Gilbert to the plate, exactly the batter Tennessee would want up in that spot. As clutch a hitter as there is in the lineup, Gilbert is the guy who hit the walk-off grand slam last weekend against Wright State to kick off the regional.

This time, he hit a chopper to third base. A run was going to score regardless because it wasn’t hit particularly hard, but it was likely going to result in an out somewhere. Instead, once Doughty fielded it, he looked to Rucker heading to third base, but couldn’t get the tag on him and by that point it was too late to throw out Gilbert at first.

It was no grand slam, but it did the job. After an Evan Russell walk, Luc Lipcius brought home Rucker with an RBI fielder’s choice, and Beck capped the inning with a bloop single into right field, scoring Gilbert and putting the Volunteers on top for good 4-2.

It wasn’t a pretty inning offensively, and you could argue it had more to do with mistakes on LSU’s part than offensive prowess for Tennessee, but it was effective, and it was reminiscent of some of Tennessee’s wins earlier this season, before it was able to lean on its power in quite the same way that it has been able to of late.

“Deja vu all over again,” Vitello said. “It shows that you can win games in any type of situation, and it’s really fun to, and we haven’t had that many of them, have the offense explode and the fans go nuts and win by eight or nine runs, but it hasn’t happened often, and especially early in the year. The kids just kind of had to learn to find a way.”

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Vitello credits the sixth-inning rally to Dallas, who in the inning prior, had held LSU to just the one run on the Pavolony error by striking out Jordan Thompson and Milazzo and getting leadoff man Dylan Crews to ground out to shortstop.

“A lot of great basketball coaches say your best offense is defense, and I think the fact that he was able to get out of that jam in a really tough spot when, if you’re a fan or a media member you’re saying ‘man, we don’t really have a lot of wiggle room for air here’ and we come in with that momentum in the dugout. They were charged up,” Vitello said.

In fact, Dallas probably deserves as much credit as anyone for the win, especially if you believe the atmosphere had anything to do with it. His final line was excellent when you consider the quality of the LSU lineup and the way that group has been swinging the bats of late. He was working quickly, pounding the strike zone, and with every strikeout causing a celebration in the stands, he gave the orange-clad fans a good reason to cheer every couple of minutes.

Undeterred by the lightning delay, which lasted about 50 minutes, or the pesky nature of some of the Tigers’ at-bats, he finished with six innings, giving up five hits and two runs (one earned) with no walks and 12 strikeouts.

“I felt like it was my game to continue, in my heart and in my mind, that there was nothing that was going to take me out of that game,” Dallas said of his approach to sitting through the delay and picking up where he left off.

Righthander Sean Hunley came on for Dallas in the seventh and did as he’s done all season, which is dominate with his fastball, an offering that sits in the low 90s at its best but plays up for reasons that aren’t necessarily clear.

“He has a really good fastball (that) he throws a lot, and it’s just kind of a hard pitch to pick up,” Bianco said. “I don’t really know why. He’s just one of those guys.”

He threw three scoreless innings with four strikeouts and got out of a jam in the ninth. LSU had runners on second and third in the frame, but he got Thompson to strike out swinging to end it.

It wasn’t easy for Tennessee on Saturday. Its offense really didn’t do a ton. Poor weather made a good effort to kill the pace of the game and dampen the crowd, both literally and figuratively. And the Mainieri magic that the Tigers have shown this postseason nearly came through again in the ninth before the Vols pulled it out.

But then again, it hasn’t always been easy this season. This team has had to pull rabbits out of its hat at certain times and it seems to have a flair for the dramatic. And honestly, that’s probably part of the reason why the Tennessee community has fallen in love with the team and we saw a crowd as rowdy as the one packed into Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Saturday. As long as it results in wins, the coaching staff will take it, no matter how it might affect them.

“Zero regard for their coaching staff’s heart or arteries or however that stuff works scientifically,” Vitello joked about his team delivering in high-pressure spots. “You know, you get to this time of year, it’s not going to be easy.”

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