“You’re going to start the game, and you’re going to finish the game.”
That was the message from Garrett Stallings’ brother on Thursday leading into his 14th start of the season. As a result, a much more confident Stallings was walking around Lindsey Nelson Stadium prior to No. 23 Tennessee’s game with No. 15 Ole Miss.
“An interesting confidence,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said of Stallings following the Vols 7-0 win over Ole Miss. “(Chris Burke) was here doing the game for ESPN, and he mentioned that he asked him (Stallings) ‘what do you got tonight?’ and he was kind of shocked how confident the answer was.”
Stallings proceeded to throw a complete game shutout against the Rebels to pick up a much-needed win to open up a vital series for the Vols — a series with NCAA Tournament implications. The junior right-hander thew 103 pitches — 71 of which were strikes — over the course of nine scoreless innings. Stallings didn’t walk a batter, allowed just four hits, and struck out seven.
“He competes the right way, and he gives his team a chance to win,” Vitello said. “But he works so hard, he’s gotten himself to where he’s one of the better pitchers in the league. He can go out there and win a game by himself.”
Thursday night marked the second time this season and the second time in his career in which Stallings threw a complete game shutout. He also shut out Georgia earlier this season.
With Thursday’s shutout win, Tennessee tied the 1994 team’s program record for shutouts in a single season with 10.
“I was super aggressive tonight,” Stallings said. “I knew they were going to be free-swingers at the beginning, so I was pitching backwards.
“I was trusting my defense too, a lot balls on the ground. Just going after them.”
With Stallings dealing on the mound, the offense jumped on Ole Miss (32-22, 15-13 SEC) ace Will Ethridge (L, 5-6) early and often. Tennessee (37-17, 13-15 SEC) only scored one run over the first four innings, but the Vols scattered 13 hits over nine innings.
After an RBI single from Andre Lipcius in the first inning gave Tennessee an early 1-0 lead, the Vols struck for four runs in the fifth to extend their lead to 5-0.
Jake Rucker and Pete Derkay picked up back-to-back singles to start the inning, setting up Ricky Martinez to step to the plate with no outs and two runners on. As an encore to his dramatic three-run home run in the Swamp on Sunday, Martinez drilled a two-run double down the left field line to push the Tennessee lead to three.
“Just seeing pitches I could hit,” Martinez said of his four-hit performance. “I tried to get the job done earlier, get a couple of bunts down, but I wasn’t able to do it. So I tried to compete for the team there.”
After Martinez’s double, freshman Connor Pavolony hit an RBI single to left. Pavolony was able to advance to third on the play due to a throwing error from the Ole Miss catcher. Lipcius then drove in his second run of the day on a hard hit ball to shortstop.
The Tennessee third baseman would strike again in the eighth on a solo home run over the left field wall. It marked Lipcius’ team-best 16th homer of the year. Lipcius finished the afternoon 3-for-4 at the plate with three runs driven in.
Tennessee wasn’t done scoring in the eighth inning following the home run. The Vols would push across their seventh and final run of the game on an RBI single from freshman Jake Rucker.
Despite blowing two seven-run leads within the past two weeks to Missouri and Florida, history wouldn’t repeat itself against the Rebels. Stallings made his way back out to the mound for the ninth inning and shut down Ole Miss in order to close out the win.
“Tonight, it was a really good win,” Vitello said. “Not only did he (Stallings) pitch like that, but his teammates around him were tremendous. They fed off the fans and the guys in the dugout. It made for a great all-around environment.”
Game two of the series is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday night. LHP Garrett Crochet (4-3, 4.29 ERA) is expected to start for Tennessee. LHP Doug Nikhazy (6-3, 3.20 ERA) is expected to start for Ole Miss.