Jordan Rodgers was speechless after becoming the third Vol to hit for the cycle in program history, helping Tennessee (17-9, 3-4 SEC) take a game one victory over No. 12 Kentucky (18-8, 4-3 SEC) by a final score of 14-5.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “It’s special. I’ll remember this for the rest of my life”
Rodgers and the Vols were in complete control of this game from the first inning. A one-out rally began in the first when Chris Hall reached base on an error. Three pitches later, Nick Senzel (3-5, 3 RBIs, 3 R) doubled to right-center to bring in Hall and put Tennessee on the board. Later in the inning, Rodgers got his first hit of the game, a single to center that scored Senzel.
Rodgers was back at the dish in the third inning with two outs, and this time it was a double to the left field wall that brought in Chris Hall to give Tennessee a 3-0 advantage.
The Vols broke out for five runs in the bottom of the 5th. Benito Santiago led off the inning with a triple. After a couple walks and a Nick Senzel double, the bases were loaded for Rodgers. He delivered once again, blasting a ball to the deepest part of the park in left-center, bringing home Hall, Senzel and Jackson.
“It always seems like when I get an RBI, Rodgers gets three,” Senzel said after the game. “What he did tonight is spectacular, couldn’t be happier for him.”
Tennessee starting pitcher Aaron Soto exited the game with runners on first and second and one out after a walk and a single. Freshman Will Neely entered and gave up a 2-run double from SEC Player of the Week Evan White. After a Senzel error allowed another run to score, Eric Freeman entered on the mound. Gunnar McNeill hit a two run home run on a 3-1 count to get Kentucky back in the game, cutting the UT lead to four.
Following two quick outs in the eighth, it looked like Tennessee would go quietly. But the top of Tennessee’s order would produce once again, exploding for five runs to match the Wildcats. The top five hitters in the order all got hits and scored in the inning, which was capped off by Rodgers’ 3-run homer to give him the cycle.
“I didn’t change my approach at all, but I knew (about the cycle),” Rodgers said about his at bat in the eighth. “The first two pitches were nasty, those were two really sharp breaking balls. I just tried to take a free and easy swing like Nick (Senzel) always tells me to do. I had a pretty good feeling it was getting out of the yard.”
Dave Serrano said that he had no idea Rodgers had a chance for the cycle when he came up to the plate in the 8th.
“I don’t get caught up in individual stats during the game,” Serrano said. “I’m very proud of Jordan. He continues to stay within himself and not try to be something special and good things are happening for him.”
On the mound, Tennessee got 7.1 strong innings from lefty Soto, who lasted into the eighth, allowing just three hits on 95 pitches.
“My biggest part of being successful tonight was being able to throw the fastball on both sides of the plate and set up the changeup,” Soto said. “I was trying to force contact and allow my defense to help me out during the game. Tomorrow night our real Friday is going with Zach Warren. This sets up the weekend well for Zach Warren and Andy Cox.”
Soto’s ability to last late in the game saved UT’s bullpen arms for games two and three.
“We’ve got some guys in the bullpen that probably thought they were going to throw tonight,” Soto added. “Because of the outcome they didn’t, and that allows them to move on to tomorrow. I think that helps the team out a lot.”
Serrano was impressed with his team’s ability to fight back and answer Kentucky’s five-run eighth inning.
“A lot of great things happened tonight,” Serrano said. “For me, when they put up the five spot to make it 9-5, you could feel the tension in the crowd, you could feel the tension in the dugout, you could probably see the tension on my face. To have this team come back with two outs and put a five spot on the board tells me everything that I knew about our guys. That was a big relief for us.”
Tennessee’s new-look batting order continued to produce on Friday night with Hall, Senzel, Jackson and Rodgers hitting in the two through five spots once again for Tennessee. It was the second time that Serrano had rolled out that lineup in SEC play, the first being in UT’s win over Alabama last Saturday night.
Serrano continued to compliment leadoff man Benito Santiago, a catcher who played right field for UT on Friday.
“It’s really fun to be able to pencil his name in everyday, whether it’s at catcher or in right field” Serrano said. “Benito is different than a catcher, he’s a true athlete. He’s a unique player with his athletic ability behind the plate.”
The Vols were 10-for-14 at the plate with runners in scoring position, while Kentucky only had five at bats with runners in scoring position. Tennessee also got seven hits in 15 at bats with two outs in the inning.
With 2,675 fans on hand, Friday’s game featured the largest attendance of the season at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Ace Zach Warren will pitch on Saturday for the Vols at 4 p.m. ET against the Wildcats. Last weekend, Kentucky lost 12-5 in game one against No. 1 Florida, only to come back and defeat the top ranked Gators in games two and three.
“The most important game in baseball is the next game,” Rodgers said. “They’re a good club. Their pitchers are good, we’ve just got to control what we can control and go out and compete.”