Will Neely had no clue he would start a pivotal game three against Vanderbilt until late Saturday night. But 113 pitches later, he had won his first career start as a Vol.
Tennessee (23-17, 6-12 SEC) took game three and the series against fourth-ranked Vanderbilt (30-10, 10-8 SEC) on Sunday, defeating the Commodores 5-3.
It was the Vols’ second straight home series victory over Vandy, and the first SEC series win of the season.
Bats Start Cold, Rally Late
Tennessee’s hitters didn’t pose much of a threat against Vandy starter Patrick Raby. The former Farragut standout was given run support early, as the Dores jumped out to a 2-0 lead after three. Raby didn’t give up a hit until the fifth inning, when Tyler Schultz doubled down the left-field line, scoring Jordan Rodgers who reached on a fielder’s choice. That brought up Derek Lance, who singled to score Schultz and tie the game at two.
After a Walker Grisanti RBI double, the top of the order came up for Tennessee in the sixth, trailing 3-2. The Vols would tag VU pitcher Walker Bowden for three runs, including a two-out rally capped off by a Derek Lance bases loaded walk and a Jared Pruett RBI single.
Dave Serrano thought his players handled the pressure well after a rough start.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one, but it felt like a Super Regional,” Serrano said. “The fans were on the edge of their seats pitch to pitch. I think our team, since we haven’t been there for so long, was trying a little bit too hard, then the game settled in and our guys started to become themselves again. It’s a learning experience.”
Neely Starts, Cox Delivers Again in Relief
Will Neely was solid in his first career start, lasting six innings. The freshman right-hander gave up two earned runs on six hits.
Neely said the start came as a surprise.
“I didn’t even know I was starting until yesterday,” Neely said. “I kind of had the thought after Andy (Cox) went in yesterday to close it out. I wasn’t thinking much about it.”
Vanderbilt scored its first run in the second when the ball got away from catcher Tyler Schultz on a strikeout, allowing Connor Kaiser to score. Dave Serrano praised Neely for his resiliency after giving up a couple of early runs.
“He gave us a chance,” Serrano said. “He didn’t cave in early when some things happened. I’m very proud of what he did to get us through the sixth.”
Serrano went to Andy Cox to close this one out for the second straight game. The senior pitched 1.1 innings, allowing two baserunners on a base hit and a hit batsman. It was Cox’s second save in as many games,
“When it was 5-to-3 Coach came to me and said ‘don’t try to be a hero,'” Cox said. “I was just ready. I knew that I’d have a chance. I told myself I was going to pitch and I had fun again. Now we get to go into this week feeling good about ourselves.”
Bottom of the Order Produces
Tennessee has struggled to find run production after Jordan Rodgers at the five spot in the lineup. Sunday was a different story.
Batting sixth, Tyler Schultz was 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. Derek Lance was 2-for-2 with an RBI hitting seventh. Jared Pruett added an RBI single in the sixth to give Tennessee its fifth run.
Lance’s RBI came from a bases-loaded walk that put UT ahead in the sixth. After falling behind in the count, Lance walked on the 10th pitch he saw.
“I was just trying to find a way to get on base and pass it to the next guy,” Lance added. “That’s kind of our motto offensively. I was just looking to battle.”
Serrano said the bottom half of the order executed the game plan perfectly.
“Their role is to move the baseball around the field,” Serrano said. “I think they did a good job with that. The one thing Jared (Pruett) does is he extends at bats. He sees a lot of pitches. The bottom of the lineup wasn’t striking out very much and they put the ball in play.”
Serrano praised his upperclassmen for leading this team to victory, starting with Lance’s bases loaded walk in the sixth.
“That at bat by Derek Lance was tremendous,” Serrano said. “Everything happened with two outs. He kept fouling pitches off and eventually he walks for the winning run. You want your seniors and your veterans to step up in these kinds of games and I saw that happen today. That’s a good sign for me.”
The Bottom Line
Tennessee addressed each of its weaknesses in this game three win. The game was closed down well by the bullpen, which has struggled for much of the year. The Vols were 3-for-8 with runners in scoring position, a spot where they have had a hard time producing all season. Perhaps most importantly, Will Neely emerged as a bonafide Sunday starter.
“I’m going to use Andy (Cox) when I can smell victory,” Serrano said. “For Friday and Saturday if we haven’t had to use him for whatever reason then I have that option to start him Sunday. Now I know I have Will Neely, who I have an option to start too.”
Hunter Martin (1.2 IP, 1H, 0 ER) had another good outing in the seventh and eighth innings. Serrano added that he will heavily rely on Martin and Cox out of the bullpen moving forward.
“We’ve come a long way,” Neely added. “At the beginning of the year the bullpen was jumpy, we weren’t throwing strikes. To come in here and beat Vanderbilt has changed a lot of the bullpen pitchers’ mindsets.”
This is the type of win that can get your team going. One win over Vandy is nice, but a series victory over the number four team in the country is monumental. This should put Tennessee back firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, where they fell out of the “First Four Out” two weeks ago.
“It was a big deal to come out here and take this series win,” Derek Lance said. “Especially against such a quality team like that, I think it’ll propel us going forward into our next SEC weekends. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time. Nothing’s been taken away from us yet. I think today can get things rolling and help this team get hot.”
The Vols travel to Missouri (20-21, 4-14 SEC) next weekend, where they will need to win at least two games to keep the momentum going. UT will host Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday and Alabama State on Wednesday.