Tennessee Rallies To Beat Texas A&M, Force College World Series Game 3


Image credit: Tennessee Vols Dylan Dreiling (8) hits a 2-run home run in the top of the seventh inning to put the Vols up 2-1 over the Texas A&M Aggies in game 2 of the the College World Series Championship at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska on Sunday, June 23, 2024 (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

Tennessee defeated Texas A&M, 4-1, in Game 2 of the College World Series finals on Sunday. The Aggies took an early lead, as All-American Jace LaViolette hit a first-inning home run. That was all the offense until the late innings. But Tennessee broke through with a pair of two-run home runs from Dylan Dreiling and Cal Stark. The Volunteers held off the Aggies’ own comeback bid, as their bullpen combined for five scoreless innings.

The series now comes down to a winner-take-all Game 3 on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

Here are six takeaways from Sunday.

Tennessee’s Offense Finally Breaks Through

For the first 15 innings of the championship series, A&M mostly quieted the Tennessee lineup. The Volunteers scored five runs on 12 hits in Game 1, but they missed some big opportunities in the game and left 10 runners on base in the 9-5 loss.

It was much the same Sunday for the first six innings. Tennessee piled up traffic on the base paths but couldn’t do anything with it. The Volunteers stranded nine runners in the first six innings as they went 0-for-14 with runners on base.

Eventually, that dam was likely to break. Tennessee averages 9.0 runs per game and has five players with at least 20 home runs. It’s a tough offense to hold down.

And that finally happened Sunday in the seventh inning. After Christian Moore led off the inning with a seven-pitch walk, lefthander Kaiden Wilson retired Blake Burke and Billy Amick, both projected top-two round draft picks next month. But he made a mistake over the plate to Dylan Dreiling and the sophomore drilled a home run to deep right field. The eighth inning played out similarly, when a mistake to Cal Stark turned into a two-out, two-run home run.

Stark said the Volunteers have built up a lot of confidence in each other over the course of the year and on Sunday stuck to their approaches at the plate.

“We always know we’re one inning away,” Stark said. “We kept stacking [quality at-bats] together and good things will end up happening.

“Really just knew that just keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, just trying to get quality at-bats, pass it to the next guy. The guy behind us has his back, and not try and do too much.”

Coach Tony Vitello said the key for the Volunteers in those moments is to not make any big changes and to trust what they work on all year.

“I feel like we’re in the cage more than anybody,” he said. “So, you might as well let your investment in the cage pay off and just use your swing.”

Cal Stark Has His Tennessee Moment

Stark started the CWS 0-for-16, going hitless in Tennessee’s first four games and in his first three at-bats Sunday, including an inning-ending double play in the sixth inning.

Two innings later, Stark, Tennessee’s nine-hole hitter, found himself back up in an important spot. The Volunteers led 2-1 in the eighth and had a runner on base with two outs.

Stark had a tough start to the at-bat, falling behind 1-2 and swinging so hard through the second strike that his bat flew out of his hands and went to the backstop. He was able to reset, however, and launched a two-run home run into left field.

It gave Tennessee some important breathing room in the game and snapped his drought at the plate, which stretched back to Game 3 of the Knoxville Super Regional.

“Every kid dreams about playing at this stage,” Stark said. “Being able to do that late in the game like that, it was pretty cool and something I’ll never forget.”

Associate head coach Josh Elander, who works with the catchers, said starting at the very first meeting of the school year he tells the Volunteers’ catchers to focus on their defense and not worry about hitting. Stark excels defensively. He showed off that side of his game Sunday, when he threw behind Ali Camarillo to pick him off first base.

Because of Stark’s focus on defense, Elander said it hadn’t been a challenge to keep him locked in even while he was struggling at the plate.

“I tell them everything offensively is a bonus,” Elander said. “He can change the game with a back pick or whatever it may be. But he’s run into some big (home runs) this year now. He’s got some juice and he’s more than capable to do that at any time.”

Stark, a senior, is hitting .209/.350/.515 this season and has just 28 hits. Of those hits, however, 18 have gone for extra-bases, including 11 home runs.

Don’t Forget About Drew Beam’s Contributions

Drew Beam gave Tennessee a solid start. He held A&M to one run on three hits and two walks in four innings and struck out seven.

The Volunteers were trailing 1-0 and Beam had just given up a hit and a walk to start the fifth, so he didn’t get a massive ovation from the Tennessee faithful. But many fans at Charles Schwab Field came to their feet to applaud Beam for what will likely be the final time. He is a projected second-round pick in next month’s draft.

Beam has pitched in Tennessee’s rotation for the last three years. He’s been a consistent presence for the pitching staff and will go down as one of the best pitchers in program history. He ranks third in both career starts (50) and wins (26) in the Volunteers’ record book and has been a key part of the rotation for some of the best teams in the program’s history.

Beam’s legacy at Tennessee will go beyond his statistical record, as impressive as that is. Vitello said he has always enjoyed coaching Beam.

“You never got out of your car going into our parking lot wondering whether Drew was going to show up to work with the right mentality, whether he would be receptive to coaching, whether he would have an unselfish approach,” Vitello said. “You always knew he would hook it up on the field for you.”

Texas A&M Opens With Unlikely Option

With No. 2 starter Shane Sdao out with an injury he suffered in super regionals, the Aggies needed to get creative on the mound in Omaha. On Sunday, that meant starting righthander Zane Badmaev, who had thrown just one inning in the NCAA Tournament, as an opener for righthander Chris Cortez.

Cortez began the season as A&M’s midweek starter but has pitched out of the bullpen since March, developing into the Aggies’ second-best reliever behind closer Evan Aschenbeck. While he has premium stuff—his fastball on Sunday reached 101 mph and he pairs it with a hard slider—he’s more comfortable pitching in relief than he is with starting.

So, on Sunday, Badmaev got the ball first and threw a scoreless first inning punctuated by two strikeouts. When he gave up a leadoff single to start the second inning, Cortez came out of the bullpen. He threw 4.1 scoreless innings, striking out seven batters. He had to work around traffic because he walked five batters. However, he made some key pitches when he needed to.

Cortez threw a career-high 99 pitches. He ultimately left with a trainer but said after the game he was fine and had just gotten dehydrated.

“I’m super proud of Zane,” Cortez said. “It’s not the easiest thing to go out there in the championship game. He’s the older guy. I always had a hard time starting and he went out there and did his thing.”

Seldom-Used Kaiden Wilson Delivers

One of the keys to Sunday’s game was always going to be what A&M did if its opener and Cortez weren’t able to combine for at least seven innings. Aschenbeck threw 46 pitches over 2.2 innings Saturday night, meaning he was only available on a more limited role Sunday.

Creating a bridge to Aschenbeck, especially after Josh Stewart also pitched Saturday, wasn’t going to be easy for a banged up pitching staff. The answer turned out to be Kaiden Wilson, a freshman who had thrown just two innings in the NCAA Tournament.

Wilson mostly pitched well in the biggest spot of his young career. He entered in the sixth inning and rolled an inning-ending double play. He made a key mistake in each of the next two innings and was punished both times, giving up the home runs.

“We really like Kaiden Wilson, we think he’s a super-talented guy,” coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “Thought he threw well except two pitches. He made two mistakes against a great team, and they got him.”

Lining Up The Game 3 Pitching

Both teams go into Monday feeling good about their pitching plans. Tennessee will turn to lefthander Zander Sechrist, who has been its best pitcher of late. He has delivered a quality start in four of his last five starts, including Wednesday against Florida State. Sechrist held the Seminoles to two runs on five hits and a walk in 6.1 innings.

Righthander Aaron Combs, one of Tennessee’s most trusted relievers, probably won’t be available after throwing 63 pitches on Sunday (though he told Vitello that he’d be able to go Monday). But Tennessee will have righthander Nate Snead, who threw 15 pitches to close Sunday’s victory. Veteran lefthander Kirby Connell is also always available.

A&M will turn to lefthander Justin Lamkin, who started both of its wins against Florida in Omaha. He threw eight scoreless innings over the two games, including on Wednesday when he struck out nine batters in five innings.

Behind him, A&M on Sunday didn’t use either righthander Josh Stewart or closer Evan Aschenbeck, leaving its bullpen in strong shape for Game 3.

Sechrist and Lamkin both pitched Wednesday, meaning they will be on short rest. But Sechrist threw 76 pitches and Lamkin threw 70 and neither team will be shy about going to the bullpen. The rest factor likely will not play a significant role Monday.

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