In its first appearance in Hoover since 2016, nine-seed Tennessee lost to eight-seed Auburn 5-3 in the opening round of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday night.
“It’s a cut-throat event,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said following the game. “It can end pretty quick on ya, especially when you don’t play good ball.”
Garrett Stallings (L, 8-4) received the start for the Vols (38-19, 14-17 SEC) and although he wasn’t dominant as usual, Tennessee’s ace turned in a solid outing. On short rest, Stallings threw 79 pitches over 5.0 innings of work. The SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year allowed three runs on five hits and three walks. He struck out five of the 22 batters he faced.
“We didn’t play good defense behind Garrett Stallings,” Vitello said. “All in all, just not a good day for us, which is disappointing because the Volunteers fans are pretty die-hard and deserve to see a little bit better in this tournament.”
Tennessee struck first, scoring on a sacrifice fly from freshman Jake Rucker in the top of the first inning. The Vols loaded the bases in the opening frame, but as was the case for the remainder of the game, they were unable to take advantage of the opportunity.
UT would score just two runs the rest of the way and tallied just four hits. With runners on base, Tony Vitello’s squad was 1-for-11 at the plate and left seven runners on base.
The 1-0 lead wouldn’t hold for long. In the bottom of the second inning, Auburn (33-23, 15-16 SEC) scored two on a bloop double to shallow center field. With Tennessee’s second baseman Jake Rucker, shortstop Ricky Martinez, and center fielder Jay Charleston unable to get to the ball, Matt Scheffler and Rankin Woley scored on Edouard Julien’s two-bagger. Scheffler had reached on an infield single that kicked off the foot of Rucker, and Woley walked.
In the top of the fifth inning, Tennessee tied the game at 2-2. Freshman Christian Scott, who started in place of junior Justin Ammons, reached base on a walk. Scott then advanced to second on a wild pitch, made it to third on a wild pitch, and then scored on a wild pitch.
According to the SEC Network broadcast, Ammons did not start due to a broken wrist. In his place, Scott finished the game 0-for-2 at the plate with two walks and a run scored.
Auburn responded in the bottom half of the fifth. After Julien and Kason Howell reached on back-to-back singles, Judd Ward scored Julien on a sacrifice squeeze down the first base line.
Ward would prove to be Tennessee’s Achilles heel in the SEC Tournament opener. In the seventh inning, the Auburn left fielder crushed a Camden Sewell slider over the right field wall for a two-run home run. Ward’s second and third run batted in extended Auburn’s lead to 5-2.
Vitello utilized four different pitchers in the seventh inning before ultimately calling for Redmond Walsh out of the pen. Walsh struck out four in 1.1 innings of work to keep the game within reach.
Elliott Anderson received the start for Auburn and allowed just two runs on three hits over 4.0 innings. The left-hander walked four and struck out six, and although he was affective on the mound, it was Bailey Horn who led the Tigers to victory.
Horn, a redshirt sophomore, improved to 3-0 on the season following 4.0 innings of work. The left-hander allowed just one run, one hit, and one walk. He struck out six, and at one point retired 11 consecutive batters. In the seventh inning, Horn struck out the side.
As good as Horn was, Cody Greenhill would have to come in and pick up his 10th save of the season. Tennessee sophomore Zach Daniels came in to pinch hit and crushed a pitch off of Horn in the ninth inning to cut the Auburn lead to 5-3. After Horn plunked Connor Pavolony to bring the potential tying-run to the plate, Greenhill entered in relief.
Scott, the first batter Greenhill faced, put a charge into a 1-2 pitch that nearly left the ballpark, but there was just enough room for the Auburn right fielder to make the catch on the warning track. Greenhill then struck Charleston out on a fastball right down the middle of the plate to end the game.
Tennessee will now have the remainder of the week off while it awaits Selection Monday. The Vols are expected to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, but the loss will make UT sweat out the process a little more.
“If you’re an at-large, you’re never really secure until they announce you’re name,” Vitello said. “The next postseason game that Tennessee plays, they’ll realize it’s just baseball.”