Tennessee entered Sunday with a chance to win its series with No. 5 Mississippi State thanks to a masterful pitching performance on Saturday night.
A day later, starter Will Neely couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning after he took a line drive off his ankle. To make matters worse, as Neely was being tended to by the trainer, pitching coach Frank Anderson was ejected.
In the words of Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello, a Mississippi State player said something about Neely laying on the ground and then a Bulldogs coach responded that “we’ll take care of it.” That’s when the umpire intervened and tossed Anderson after taking up for Neely.
“Frank (Anderson) said something to the umpire that he shouldn’t have,” Vitello said following Tennessee’s 7-5 loss. “It was a quick hook.”
From that point on, it felt as if the Vols (23-10, 4-8 SEC) were facing an uphill climb.
Tennessee had jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Bulldogs in the first inning thanks to an RBI double from Andre Lipcius and an RBI groundout from Pete Derkay. And after Mississippi State got on the board with a run in the third, the Vols immediately responded in the bottom half of the inning on an RBI single from Al Soularie to make it 3-1.
But from the moment Neely left the game, Mississippi State (27-6, 7-5 SEC) went on to out-score UT 6-2 the rest of the way to clinch the series.
“He (Neely) was on pace to do what he does for us, give us a quality start,” Vitello said. “You hate to see it. There’s nothing I can do in that situation. He doesn’t need me to hug him or anything. He’s down in pain, and it’s a helpless feeling.”
Before being hit by the line drive in the fourth, Neely allowed two straight singles to put runners on the corners. Elijah MacNamee then stepped to the plate and hit an RBI single up the middle to make it a 3-2 game.
After Neely plunked Dustin Skelton, Rowdey Jordan hit a line drive that caught Neely on the ankle. Jordan reached base to load the bases and Will Heflin was brought in out of the bullpen. Heflin walked the first batter he faced, Marshall Gilbert, to walk in a run and tie the game at 3-3.
“What was disappointing is we had a hitter that I thought was a good match-up for him with two strikes and we hit him,” Vitello said. “That’s kind of how that whole mess started in that inning.”
Mississippi State scored six of its seven runs between the third and sixth inning. After tying the game up in the fourth, Bulldogs first baseman Tanner Allen hit a solo home run to give his team a 4-3 lead.
Then in the sixth inning, Jake Mangum hit a two-run double to extend the lead to 6-3. Mangum, State’s all-time leading hits leader, finished the game 1-of-5 with two RBI.
Tennessee quickly gained the two runs back a half inning later. Pinch hitting for Pete Derkay, sophomore Zach Daniels hit a two-run home run to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 6-5. The homer was Daniels’ first of the season.
“It was huge for the game,” Vitello said. “If we would have been able to finish that inning off the way we needed to, it would have been the story of Zach rallied and started the whole mess for us. He would have gotten much, much credit.”
Andrew Schultz relieved Heflin following his one inning of work. Schultz allowed three runs in three innings of work, including Mississippi State’s insurance run in the eighth inning. Redmond Walsh would pitch a scoreless ninth inning, but Tennessee’s offense couldn’t push any runs across in the bottom of the inning.
“We need to find a way to get it done,” Vitello responded when asked about the weekend. “There are no medals being handed out to these guys for second place or close place or anything like that.
“Last year, to be honest with you, kind of woulda gone back in the coaches’ locker room and said ‘Wow, we kinda gave ’em hell this weekend and good job, we got our win.’ But that’s not where we are right now.”
With the loss, Tennessee currently sits tied for fourth place with Florida in the SEC East standings. The Vols will face Lipscomb on Tuesday night before welcoming No. 7 Georgia on Thursday night to begin a three-game series.