Arkansas ends Tennessee’s season on Bernal’s walk-off double

WHAT HAPPENED: Arkansas redshirt junior shortstop Michael Bernal doubled into the left field corner to bring in junior second baseman Rick Nomura in the bottom of the ninth-inning to give the Razorbacks a walk-off 2-1 win over Tennessee on Tuesday in the first round of the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.

The No. 5 seed Razorbacks improve to 34-20 and advance to play No. 4 Florida in the late game tomorrow evening in the double-elimination portion of the tournament. The Vols end their season at 24-26.

Arkansas’ right-hander Trey Killian was spectacular early and Tennessee junior left-hander Andy Cox was wild, but Cox still pitched out of jams for three innings and sophomore right-hander Kyle Serrano stepped in and did the same into the seventh inning. 

The Razorbacks got on the board that inning. Third baseman Tyler Spoon led off with a double to right, then moved to third on a single by designated hitter Bret McAfee. Tennessee brought in junior left-hander Drake Owenby who got the first hitter he faced to pop out, and Nomura hit a soft liner at Tennessee shortstop A.J. Simcox that could have been a double play. However, Simcox’s throw to second forced Nick Senzel to stretch to make the play and he couldn’t turn to make the relay throw, allowing Spoon to score.

Tennessee answered in the eighth with an unlikely hero, however. With junior center fielder Chris Hall on first, catcher Benito Santiago — who didn’t have an extra base or an RBI all season coming into the at-bat and was hitting .123 coming into the game — doubled into the left center field gap to to tie the game 1-1.

In the bottom of the ninth, however, Nomura reached with a two-out single to right and Nomura crushed a 3-1 pitch from closer Andrew Lee down the left field line to bring the run home.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Arkansas junior right-hander Trey Killian took a no-decision, but he was almost lights out for 7 1/3 innings. He retired the first 14 base runners he faced before he finally allowed a baserunner on a flared single by Tennessee right fielder Jordan Rodgers. He gave up a double to start the sixth inning, but still faced the minimum when Parker Wormsley tried to go from second to third on a ground ball to short and Nick Senzel, who hit that grounder, was caught stealing. He struck out five batters, scattered four hits and didn’t walk a batter, locating his fastball well with movement and playing off of that.

Bernal reached base three times including the walk-off double. Spoon was 3-for-4 with a double and a run scored and Nomura had a run scored and an RBI.

Santiago had Tennessee’s most surprising RBI of the season. Cox had a bizarre first inning, walking three batters and striking out three, but he pitched out of two big jams, finishing with four strikeouts. Serrano got out of a massive bases-loaded jam in the fourth by getting Arkansas outfielder and SEC Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi to strike out looking. He also stranded a man on third in the fifth and runners on first and third in the sixth.

WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Arkansas has one of the best offenses in the SEC and came in with a .292 batting average. They stranded 15 men on base on Tuesday, but at some point, Arkansas was going to break through, and that finally happened in the ninth.

The Vols had to do a lot just to keep it together in this game. Cox was clearly dealing with powerful nerves in the first with a Nuke Laloosh-like inning, but he kept himself from getting discouraged and got hitters to chase his slider. Serrano had moments where he lost control as well, but his strikeout of Andrew Benintendi in the fourth might have been one of the most impressive sequences of his college career. Santiago’s double is the sort of hit that can propel him going forward, as he was clearly losing confidence at the plate this year.

In the end, though, the team that was more used to winning found a way to win.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: The Vols obviously needed to win the SEC Tournament, so this means an end to what, when all is said and done, has to be viewed as a disappointing year.

On the flip side, considering how deep of a hole the Vols were in in mid April when they were 5-14 in the SEC, their turnaround was impressive. Not miraculous, because Tennessee did have the good fortune of playing what turned out to be the last-place team in the conference at the end of the season, but impressive. It took all season for Tennessee to find the right lineup — and no one would have suggested at the season’s beginning that the lineup the Vols won with was the one that would work — but once they did, they found a sense of synergy that made the whole better than the sum of its parts. The simple fact that they didn’t fold when everything seemed bleak gives them a good bit to be proud of.

All of that being said, now that the season is over, there are legitimate questions to be asked about the future of the program.

From a pure talent standpoint, the Vols were never the Omaha contender that coach Dave Serrano believed they could be. There simply wasn’t enough power beyond Christin Stewart, Andrew Lee, Nick Senzel and A.J. Simcox to expect this team to make that sort of run. The Vols didn’t necessarily need more home run hitters, but they only had one other player, right fielder Jordan Rodgers who finished the season with more than three doubles. The starting pitching was good but not great and the bullpen was solid but not lights out, so expecting the Vols to win enough on small ball to be a national contender was a big ask.

That being said, a Top 25 finish and a regional shouldn’t have turned into the pipe dream it turned out to be, so this season does go down as an underachievement despite the late rally.

That puts Serrano in an interesting position. He very much deserves credit for what the Vols accomplished in the season’s final month. Moving players such as Jared Pruett, Parker Wormsley, Chris Hall, Benito Santiago and Jordan Rodgers into the starting lineup took some foresight because those weren’t necessarily the most talented players at their respective positions. In Pruett and Wormsley’s case, it wasn’t particularly close, but he ended up with the lineup that was the best available defensively and one that gave him competitive at-bats at every spot in the order. He switched the pitching staff around on a number of occasions, even putting his own son in the bullpen because it appeared to be the best move for the team. He pressed a number of the right buttons, and he refused to let the Vols give up on themselves.

That being said, Tennessee had to expect more than two SEC tournament berths and two one-and-done outings in Serrano’s first four years. He might point out that the Vols hadn’t been in the SEC tournament since 2007 before last season, but that’s in part because only eight teams reached the tournament before Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference. Todd Raleigh won 11 SEC games or more in three of his four seasons and never made the league tournament because there was a higher bar to clear to make it.

Serrano has one more year left on his contract, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have more talent on his team next year than this year. Stewart will likely go in the top three rounds. Lee and SImcox will likely be drafted. Senior right-hander and ace Bret Marks is out of eligibility and will likely be a pro. It’s less likely but still conceivable that left-handers Andy Cox and Drake Owenby could be taken high enough to forego their senior years. On top of that, Tennessee recruits Chris Betts, Trey Cabbage and Garrett Davila are all ranked in the Top 200 of draft eligible players by Baseball America, which means the Vols might lose them and others before they even come to Knoxville.

There are still some solid pieces returning. Senzel, who led the Vols in average, is back. Vincent Jackson should be back healthy. Kyle Serrano has another year left. But this year was the year the Vols were building for. Not next year. They have lost some program momentum, and they have to determine whether or not they believe Dave Serrano can get it back.