CLEMSON, S.C.—For four hours and 43 minutes over 14 innings Saturday night, Clemson and Tennessee battled through every pitch. The two teams, which both finished the regular season ranked in the top 20 of the Top 25, had gone through nearly every scenario on the diamond. They had gone back and forth, trading punch after punch. The game appeared to be over multiple times, only for the momentum to turn on a dime and it keep barreling on.
Finally, in the 14th inning, Tennessee’s Hunter Ensley, who had been 0-for-6 with four strikeouts, shot a double into the gap in right center. Maui Ahuna, who had just drawn a one-out walk, raced around to score from first base to give the Volunteers the lead. It was the first run either team scored in extra innings, and it proved to be enough. Clemson was unable to match it in the bottom half of the inning, leaving the tying run stranded on third against righthander Seth Halvorsen, and Tennessee won, 6-5.
With the victory, the Volunteers advanced to the Clemson Regional final Sunday night. The Tigers, meanwhile, have to fight out of the loser’s bracket and face Charlotte in an elimination game Sunday afternoon.
Saturday’s game itself will go down as an instant classic, destined to be talked about as one of the best games ever in regionals. At the end of it, Tennessee coach Tony Vitello was unsure where to begin in trying to break it down.
“I’m just appreciative to be a part of that thing,” Vitello said. “It was special for both sides. There’s a lot of plays you can analyze if you want to, but they all make up one crazy game.”
There are a lot of ways to analyze any one baseball game. You can look at the big moments, the plays the game turned on. There were plenty of those Saturday. Clemson first grabbed the lead with a four-run fifth inning, chasing Tennessee righthander Chase Dollander. After back-to-back singles from the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, Cam Cannarella ripped a three-run home run. Two batters later, Tennessee went to the bullpen for righthander Chase Burns and Caden Grice greeted him with a double.
Clemson appeared to have the game in hand, going into the ninth. Grice had been superb on the mound for the Tigers and got two quick outs in the inning before back-to-back singles put runners on the corners for Zane Denton, who had homered in his last at-bat. Clemson went to the bullpen for closer Ryan Ammons and Denton, after falling behind 0-2, worked the count back to even and then ripped a three-run home run to left, giving the Volunteers a 5-4 lead.
Clemson refused to go quietly, however. Blake Wright led off the bottom half of the inning with a double. Burns, who had settled into the game on the mound after a few solid innings of relief, got the next two batters. He got ahead on Cannarella 1-2, only to see him tie the game with a double.
The moments kept going back and forth. There was Burns working out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the 10th inning, when Clemson even briefly appeared to have walked the game off on a double-play groundball that was incorrectly called safe on the field. There was Tennessee getting the go-ahead run to third in the 11th and then again in the 13th, coming up empty both times. There was Cannarella getting ejected in the 13th inning for trash talking on his way off the field, following an earlier warning given to both teams.
There was Ensley’s RBI double. There was Halvorsen winning a battle with Grice in the bottom of the 14th, getting him to strike out looking for the crucial second out of the inning and then ending the game with a fly out.
“I think both sides would be wasting their time saying, ‘(If only we had) this pitch or this play,’ ” Vitello said. “At no point in that game was there a lack of effort. You’ve got young guys out there, there’s going to be some goofy things happen, some good things and some bad things.”
You can also analyze the best players in a game; how they performed and what their future might hold. Saturday’s game treated fans to a delightful pitching matchup of Dollander and Grice. Dollander is a projected first-round pick in July and the 2022 SEC Pitcher of the Year. He wasn’t quite at his best against Clemson, particularly with his command. He gave up four runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.1 innings. His fastball consistently sat 96-97 mph, but his typically sharp slider evaded him, and he worked in more curveballs than usual.
Grice, who doubles as Clemson’s cleanup hitter and first baseman, outpitched Dollander. He was masterful, pounding the strike zone and mixing pitches. He struck out 10 batters, walked one and gave up four runs on six hits. He nearly pitched a complete game and was one strike away from finishing it before he gave up a two-out hit in the ninth, the second straight hit he’d allowed. With the go-ahead run at the plate and Grice at 113 pitches, Clemson went to the bullpen. He also went 2-for-7 with a double.
Burns, who projects as a first-round pick in 2024, was electric out of the bullpen. Vitello said Tennessee went into the game planning to use Dollander and Burns in a piggyback and hoped they wouldn’t need any other pitchers. Burns did his best to make that gameplan a reality, as he threw 99 pitches in 6.1 innings. It was his longest outing since throwing 6.2 innings March 11 against Morehead State and the most pitches he’d thrown since March 25 against Texas A&M, when he also threw 99. Both of those outings came when he was still in Tennessee’s rotation, before he moved into the fireman role he currently occupies. He struck out eight batters, walked four and gave up four hits, but worked out of jams and held Clemson to one run.
Halvorsen, who also will be drafted this summer, finished the game with 3.1 hitless innings for the Volunteers. He struck out three and walked one.
“They’re all power, it’s power stuff,” coach Erik Bakich said. “Everyone’s 95-99 (mph) and wipeout stuff. Our guys were more pitchability, more changing speeds. Both were effective. It just goes to show you when you have power stuff, it’s tough to hit because it’s tough to be on two pitches when one is 98 and one is an exploding slider. Those three guys, premium stuff.
“The way Caden pitched, he could have pitched at any level today. He was awesome.”
You can also look at its impact on the big picture and how the result impacts the programs. That with Saturday’s win, Tennessee is now one victory away from winning regionals for a third straight season, something the program has never before accomplished, and that its pitching is set up pretty well in pursuit of that goal.
That Tennessee has now won five of its last seven games away from the friendly confines of Lindsey Nelson Stadium after starting the year 4-12 away from home. That the Volunteers might just be hitting their stride at the perfect time of year.
Meanwhile, Clemson, which hadn’t lost a game since April 28 at Boston College, is now staring its mortality in the face. The Tigers’ 17-game winning streak is over, and they must mount a new three-game streak if they’re going to win their first regional since 2010. The Tigers used nine relievers Saturday and while none threw more than 20 pitches, it’s still sure to impact the way Bakich and pitching coach Jimmy Belanger deploy the bullpen in the games to come.
After the game, Bakich wasn’t yet sure who the Tigers would start Sunday against Charlotte, mindful of the fact that they need to beat the 49ers to advance but that winning just one more game this weekend won’t leave them satisfied.
Any of those are perfectly valid lenses through which to view the game; a series of big moments, the wealth of talent on the field, the way it affects two programs moving forward. But sometimes the game itself is bigger than any or all of that.
Saturday night at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, Clemson and Tennessee quite probably played the best college baseball game of the season. If there’s a better game than that, whether it comes later in this NCAA Tournament or in the big leagues in October, we’ll all be very lucky to have seen it. Because Clemson and Tennessee played with incredible intensity and at a high level in a magnificent atmosphere.
The tension and the meaning of the game was overwhelming. The team that wins the Saturday night winner’s bracket game usually goes on to win the regional, making its importance paramount. Everyone in both dugouts knew the stakes.
Yet what they delivered on the field was so much more. It was everything we love about baseball and the NCAA Tournament, all wrapped up into one game, and when it was over, you could hardly believe it all happened in one night.