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Tennessee Grabs Big Victory Over No. 5 Mississippi State

(Photo via Emma Petty/Tennessee Athletics)

Paco the Rally Squirrel was the story following Tennessee’s game on Saturday night, but it was the arm of Zach Linginfelter who allowed Paco to shine.

Linginfelter (W, 5-3) allowed one run on five hits in 6.2 innings on the bump. The junior right-hander struck out three and walked two batters as he dominated one of the best lineups in the country. Tennessee held Mississippi State to five hits on the night, the Bulldogs’ second-fewest in a game this season.

“I didn’t think my stuff was honestly that great tonight,” Linginfelter said following the win. “Just keeping them out front a little bit and using the fastball. They seemed late on it so I just kept trying to move it around.”

The Sevierville native’s strong outing is a week removed from a start against Vanderbilt in which he didn’t make it out of the second inning. Against the Commodores, Linginfelter served up two home runs, which resulted in giving up seven runs on eight hits.

Three days later, Linginfelter all but demanded he start against Belmont in the Vols’ mid-week game.

Linginfelter was much more efficient in his lone inning of work against the Bruins. In Tennessee’s 6-2 win, he allowed one hit and gave up a walk, but escaped the game without any damage on 11 pitches.

“It all started with him wanting the ball on Tuesday,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “He got to go out there and feel better about himself after the Vanderbilt outing.

“He got rid of or shed himself of that eagerness to get out there and let it fly because he was a little amped up on Tuesday, and I think he got that out of his system.”

Having worked out the kinks that plagued him against Vanderbilt a week prior, Linginfelter strolled through a Bulldogs lineup that ranks among some of the best in the country. Entering the weekend, Mississippi State had six players in its lineup hitting over .340. Tennessee had one.

“The first word that came to mind was mature,” Vitello said of Linginfelter’s performance. “That maturation has turned in him into a first-responder.

“In the real world, there’s no one you can look up to more than a first-responder, appreciate more what they do. Our guys are not doing that serious stuff on the field, but you have to respond from a loss, a bad call, a bad break, whatever it is. He certainly responded.”

Mississippi State (26-6, 6-5 SEC) jumped on Tennessee (23-9, 4-7 SEC) first in the pitcher’s duel when in the top of the fourth inning, right fielder Elijah MacNamee singled to left with one out and then advanced to second on a wild pitch. A batter later, MacNamee scored on an RBI single up the middle from second baseman Justin Foscue.

J.T. Ginn – a former first round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers – was set to start for the Bulldogs, but he was scratched late Saturday afternoon due to stiffness. Instead, right-hander Peyton Plumlee got the start.

Plumlee was cruising along, allowing just one hit through four innings. But bad luck struck in the bottom of the fifth for the senior.

Vols freshman first baseman Max Ferguson led off the inning with a walk before fellow freshman Jake Rucker singled to left. With runners on first and second with no outs, catcher Landon Gray laid down a beautiful bunt down the third base line that allowed Ferguson and Rucker advance to third and second.

Just after Gray was put out at first following the bunt, Plumlee threw the baseball into the Mississippi State dugout before the umpires awarded him a timeout. As a result, Ferguson and Rucker were allowed to score on the two-base error that proved to be the difference in the game.

“I’ve seen it in a baseball game, but not the scoring runs part,” Vitello said of the error. “It’s unfortunate for Plumlee.

“I really truly feel our team deserved a break like that. It certainly was a break. It was earned with (Jake) Rucker executing, (Landon) Gray executing a bunt and being in that position in the first place. With what these guys do around here everyday and how they’ve competed, they’ve deserved a break.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Linginfelter added.

With two outs in the seventh inning, Redmond Walsh relieved Linginfelter on the mound following a two-out single from State’s Marshall Gilbert. Walsh promptly shut the door on the threat, striking out Mississippi State’s all-time hits leader, Jake Mangum, to end the inning.

Walsh would finish out the game, pitching a scoreless eighth and ninth inning to pick up his fourth save of the season. The redshirt-sophomore struck out three while not allowing a baserunner.

“I was excited,” Walsh said. “It’s what you dream of, just going out there in an SEC game, a close ball game and just going in there for the save and getting the win for your team.”

Tennessee’s 23rd win of the season tied the three-game series at one win apiece after Mississippi State took Friday’s night game 6-3 in 11 innings. The rubber match on Sunday is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET.

Senior RHP Will Neely is expected to start for Tennessee.

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