WHAT HAPPENED: Junior center fielder Chris Hall’s walk-off RBI single capped a three-run ninth-inning rally that gave Tennessee a 3-2 win over Mississippi State on Saturday in front of 1,921 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and gave the Vols a series sweep and a berth in the SEC tournament.
The Vols improved to 24-25 overall, 11-18 in the SEC. They get the No. 12 seed in the SEC tournament and will face No. 5 seed Arkansas on Tuesday at approximately 8 p.m. in Hoover, Ala.
The sweep is Tennessee’s first this season and its first sweep of an SEC team since they swept Alabama March 30-April 1, 2012. Mississippi State ends its season at 24-30, 8-22.
Neither team got on the board in the first seven innings thanks to a pitcher’s duel between Mississippi State’s Austin Sexton and Tennessee’s Bret Marks. Sexton allowed just four hits in 6 1/3 scoreless innings and Marks scattered six hits in the first seven. Tennessee had runners on second and third with one out in the seventh, but Hall lined out to third and MSU third baseman Matthew Britton doubled off UT’s Andrew Lee at third.
Marks, who pitched well beyond his expected pitch count after missing his last two starts because of shoulder tightness, threw an elevated fastball to start the eighth inning, however, and MSU first baseman Wes Rea crushed it well over the left field wall, giving the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
Lee took the mound and retired the first batter he faced, but then gave up a single to MSU junior second baseman John Holland and then an RBI double to sophomore left fielder Cody Brown. He struck out the next two batters to end the inning, however, keeping the deficit at 2-0.
Tennessee juniors Jared Pruett drew a walk to start the ninth, however, and junior left fielder Christin Stewart was hit by a pitch to give the Vols runners on first and second with no one out. Junior shortstop A.J Simcox bunted down the first base line to move them over. When Rea fielded the bunt and moved toward Simcox to try to tag him, Simcox back-pedaled and also drifted into the grass in foul territory. Rea stopped pursuing him, apparently thinking Simcox would be ruled out for stepping out of the baseline. He was not and when Rea motioned away from him, Simcox sprinted to first. Umpires ruled that he had never been tagged and was safe. That loaded the bases with no one out.
Lee bounced an 0-1 pitch through the right side to bring in two runs to tie it, the second scoring on an error by MSU right fielder Jake Vickerson. Sophomore Jordan Rodgers walked to load the bases again, and Hall bounced a 2-0 pitch up the middle to bring the winning run home.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Hall started the season 1-for-28, but is hitting .309 since, it was fitting that he was the player who got the game-winning hit to send the Vols to Hoover.
Lee is only credited with one RBI because of the error, but his hit was obviously critical. Though he gave up the second run of the game in the eighth, the two strikeouts he had to keep the situation from getting worse were critical. He also pitched a scoreless inning in the ninth.
Marks was gritty. He had excellent fastball command, good movement on his breaking pitches, and a change-up that he mixed in well for swings and misses. He mostly pitched to contact, working quickly on a tight leash. He threw 97 pitches, 63 of them strikes, and only threw more than 15 pitches in an inning once.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Serrano and Mississippi State coach John Cohen both made decisions in Tennessee’s half of the ninth that were at least somewhat questionable. Serrano’s worked, and Cohen’s didn’t.
Simcox has been as consistent a hitter as the Vols have had this season, especially lately. He’s raised his batting average 46 points from .246 on April 17 to .292. He was hitting .381 in the Vols’ last 14 games (21-for-55) and he has 11 RBI in the Vols’ last 12 games. Mississippi State had left-hander Ross Mitchell, who has had a spectacular career, on the mound and the Vols had the left-handed Andrew Lee on deck. Serrano elected to use the right-handed Simcox to bunt which, had it worked as expected, would’ve given the Vols runners at second and third with one out and Lee facing the lefty Mitchell down 2-0. They were basically betting the house on a left-handed hitter being able to get a hit off a left-handed pitcher and taking the bat out of the hands of a right-hander on a relatively hot streak.
The bunt of course, worked far better than planned thanks to Simcox’s back-pedal, loading the bases. Then, instead of sticking with the left-hander to face Lee, MSU took Mitchell out after two-batters for the right-handed Trevor Fitts. It made sense on some level because Fitts is the Bulldogs’ closer and has eight more strikeouts than Mitchell (28 to 20) in 25 1/3 fewer innings. Still, a bringing in a right-hander to face a left-hander isn’t usually optimal and it turned out not to be in the case of either Lee or Hall. Both singled off of him to give Tennessee the game.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: Tennessee coach Dave Serrano has at no point denied that this Tennessee team has underachieved. The Vols started the season in the Top 25, and Serrano was not the least bit subtle about hinting that he believed they could reach the College World Series.
Instead, the Vols finish the regular season under .500 at 24-25 overall, 11-18 in the SEC, and they will need a miracle in the SEC tournament to play past Memorial Day weekend.
Still, the Vols had to dig deep just to continue playing past Saturday and they did with what has been a thrilling run. They spent most of the season at or near the bottom of the conference and they were 5-14 in the league after the first game of the South Carolina series. However, they won the last two games of that series and finished the season winners of six of their last 10 SEC games and five of their last six games overall. Even their losses, three of which were against a Texas A&M team that will likely have a national seed in the NCAA tournament, have been competitive.
The lineup they’ve been using isn’t the most talented they could’ve put together with the roster they began the season with, but it plays with cohesion and the pieces seem to fit together. Even the players who don’t produce much tend to put together competitive at-bats, and even though there is very little power after the No. 5 hole, there aren’t as many easy outs as there were early in the season. The defense, which struggled mightily early, is much, much better, and the Vols usually get at least decent pitching.
It’s unlikely Tennessee’s season will continue past Tuesday, and if it does, it’s even more unlikely that it will continue much past that. The Vols are, after all, the last team to get in to conference tournament in one of the most talented leagues in the country. All the same, the Vols are in the SEC tournament for back-to-back years for the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. After as rough a start as they have, the Vols have reasons to be happy they are still playing.
“The synergy that somehow has now crept into this team is unbelievable,” Serrano said. “You guys have heard me say all year long. As a coach, you want your team playing its best baseball at the end of the year. I thought, unfortunately, it was going to be a little too late, because I felt coming on after the A&M series. … I’m just so happy for our guys. I really am. They’ve been through a tough time this year. Our expectations were very high and rightly so, they should’ve been. We didn’t meet those expectations, but to know at the end of the season, we’re going to the SEC Tournament for the first time in back-to-back years in I think 10 years tells me everything I need to know about these guys.”