They have flown much more under the radar this year than they did last year, but the mental makeup of this year’s Tennessee Baseball team is second to none. That was on display once again Monday.
Facing elimination in the 2023 College World Series, the Vols beat the Stanford Cardinal 6-4 for their first win at the event since 2001. It wasn’t easy, though.
Tony Vitello’s team fell behind 4-0 due to a rough start by Chase Dollander, who was pulled after three innings. On top of that, UT had two runners on base with one out in the first and second innings and came away empty.
Pulling out this win would require major adjustments, and that’s exactly what Tennessee Baseball brought. It started with Vitello bringing in Chase Burns after Dollander went out, cashing in on his bullpen advantage.
Burns delivered a masterpiece, pitching for six innings, striking out nine and allowing just two hits. He didn’t walk anybody. It was one of the most clutch performances ever seen by a pitcher.
On offense, though, the team that relied on home runs all year to score, ranked No. 6 in the nation with 126 total home runs, had to adjust to small ball. It came in the fifth inning.
Stanford ace Quinn Mathews threw 156 pitches last week, and as his pitch count hit 70 in this game, the fatigue finally set in. This time, UT loaded the bases with one out.
However, scoring would still be a fight, as their first run came when Zane Denton ran home on a tag off a Hunter Ensley sac fly. Denton barely made it home, though, and just missed being tagged out, only confirmed on replay.
There were three more hits and a walk in the inning just to bring home three runs. Then came the seventh inning, where two more runs were scored in small-ball fashion.
With two on and one out, Denton drove Griffin Merritt in with a ground-out. Then Blake Burke scored thanks to a wild pitch, and the score stayed at 6-4 the rest of the way.
Small ball is the opposite of how Tennessee Baseball typically plays, as they usually like to clear the bases, but it shows their ability to adjust and remain calm. That mental make-up is huge.
Rocky Top will next take the field Tuesday night to face the loser between the LSU Tigers, who beat them on Saturday, and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, for a shot at the Final Four. With neither team’s ace likely to play, the Vols may have the edge.