The Diamond Vols (18-11) got a mid-week win over Morehead State (17-12) Wednesday night, but it took some late game theatrics to secure a much needed victory.
Morehead State had a runner on second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but senior Chris Hall gunned down the game tying run at the plate after Jon Lipinski ran the count full. The Vols held on for a 6-5 victory.
Santiago Saves Tennessee
Tennessee controlled much of this game, but things got wild in the eighth inning. Morehead State scored three runs off three hits and two Tennessee errors. All three runs were unearned, thanks to a fielding error from Max Bartlett and a throwing error from Jordan Rodgers. Those three runs tied the game up at five.
After committing an error that allowed two runs to score, Max Bartlett lined a double to left with one out in the eighth. Benito Santiago (3-5, 3 RBIs) took a 2-2 fastball to right field to give the Vols the lead with two outs in the bottom half of the eighth. It was Santiago’s second double of the night.
“I knew that I had to come through,” Santiago said. “I had a couple good at bats. One of my powers is working away and everything panned out.”
Santiago has cemented himself firmly into the leadoff role, and he added after the game that he feels comfortable batting first in the order.
“I love it,” Santiago said. “I’m seeing it well, leading the team to good things. I have never hit leadoff, so this is a change. Anything I can do to contribute at the end of the day is what I need to do. There’s only one time that you leadoff, so after that it’s just the same thing, passing it on to the next guy.”
The ninth inning looked like it was going to be relatively routine, until a Nick Senzel error prolonged the inning. Right fielder Chris Hall said he immediately knew his game-ending throw to the plate was on target.
“That’s a big part in the game, and you know that guy’s running,” Hall said. “The ball got to me quick, but I’m not sure how I threw the guy out. I’ve had a lot of throws to home, and being a senior I’ve learned a lot. I’ve really focused on keeping the ball down and throwing through my cutoff. I’ve been making really accurate throws, and that was really where I needed it to be.”
Late-Game Drama Looked Familiar
The Vols escaped with a win, after throwing away another lead late in the game. Dave Serrano was not pleased with his team’s mentality heading into this one, starting with practice on Tuesday.
“The focus wasn’t there tonight,” Serrano said. “I’m disappointed in that. I hope that’s got their attention. We’re better than that, and this weekend we’re playing in an atmosphere at South Carolina where how we played tonight won’t be tolerated. We’d be embarrassed.”
Tennessee’s bullpen has been shaky this season, giving away two close games against Kentucky over the weekend. Eric Freeman gave up the first two runs to the Eagles after Alex Harper-Cook pitched three scoreless innings to start the game. Will Neely pitched 1.1 innings in relief without giving up a hit. Dave Serrano said the bullpen wasn’t totally to blame for the poor performance on Wednesday.
“I don’t want to sit here and bash the bullpen kind of like I have been,” Serrano said. “We’ve got to play better defense, that probably makes this game a lot easier. We didn’t swing the bats tremendously well either. I thought some guys threw well, that was Will Neely’s best performance of the year tonight. We need to play better as a baseball team.”
This was Alex Harper-Cook’s second straight start in the middle of the week, and Serrano said that he will continue to get the ball against mid-week opponents.
“He’s a mid-week starter for us,” Serrano added. “I’m not searching for a weekend starter right now. Eventually in this program that’s what he’ll be. Right now he’ll be a left hander out of the bullpen. I think he’s shown he can have success versus right and left handed hitters.”
The Bottom Line
Tennessee needed this. It was a good lesson in how to grind out a victory despite playing bad baseball. Dave Serrano says his team has to change its personality as it heads into the weekend.
“Sometimes you have to get their attention, and this coaching staff will,” Serrano said. “The importance of being good isn’t important enough right now. Another weekend where we came up short, but we have a lot of season left, this is a battle every weekend. That personality will not be something that I’ll tolerate. We’re lucky enough to win, and I hope that got their attention too.”
Tennessee will face No. 6 South Carolina, a team that dropped two out of three to Vanderbilt on the road last weekend. Dave Serrano has to find some kind of consistency out of the bullpen, starting with Jon Lipinski.
Lipinski has handled the closing duties for Tennessee this year, but has been making more and more appearances earlier in the game when Tennessee needs a strong right hander to shut the door. His inconsistency should worry the coaching staff. Lipisnki got the win on Wednesday, lowering his ERA to 4.67.
After the game, Chris Hall said he was confident in his team moving forward after a lackluster performance on Wednesday.
“At this point, we can’t get down on ourselves when stuff happens,” Hall said. “Nobody goes down easy, and we’re not going to go down easy. We can’t lose any of these mid-weeks. I think we learned a lot of lessons about how we need to come out everyday. Every game is big at this point. It’s go time, especially with where we are in the SEC.”
This lineup has the ability to score on anyone in the country. First baseman Jordan Rodgers has a NCAA leading 48 RBIS, and is on pace to break Todd Helton’s school record for RBIs in a season (92). At third base, Nick Senzel is the number two prospect in the upcoming MLB draft according to Baseball America. What’s lacking is a go-to guy out of the bullpen, and a solid defense that gives Tennessee’s pitchers enough confidence to pitch to contact, rather than trying to strike guys out.
If Tennessee can avoid a sweep against the Gamecocks, it bodes well for them moving forward. The Vols will need to rely on stellar starting pitching from the trio of Zach Warren, Aaron Soto and Andy Cox. Those three guys have to take the ball out of the hands of a struggling cast of relief pitchers. A couple good starts from those guys, and Tennessee could steal the series. A big performance in Columbia would certainly turn this season around.