All hope looked lost for the Vols in the bottom of the ninth. But just when everyone had counted Tennessee out, they pulled out a miracle and kept their season alive.
Liberty had the bases loaded with no outs in a tie ballgame in the bottom of the ninth. Tennessee’s closer, Redmond Walsh, had just plunked a batter to force home the tying run. The Vols were in desperation mode, hoping to keep their postseason run going.
Pete Derkay snagged a line drive at first base for the first out. Then, Walsh pitched a perfect double play ball, and his infielders executed the play to perfection as well.
And just like that, Tennessee headed to extras.
In the top of the 10th inning, Jake Rucker smacked a single into left field with two outs and a runner on third, and the Vols retook the lead 6-5 on the clutch hit.
After the lead-off man got on base in the bottom of the 10th for Liberty, Walsh got the next three Flames out to end the game and propel Tennessee to a Regional Final match-up with North Carolina.
The two-seed Vols (40-20) had plenty of chances to put the game away against three-seed Liberty (43-22) or at least take a bigger lead. But Tennessee could never get more than a three-run lead, and the Flames fought back every time.
But in the end, Tennessee found just enough to avenge their 6-1 loss to Liberty in the first round of the Chapel Hill Regional.
Tennessee had a prime opportunity in the first inning to take a commanding lead. The Vols loaded the bases and had no outs with one of their best hitters, Alerick Soularie, up to the plate.
Instead of emptying the bases or driving home a couple runs, Soularie grounded into a double play that resulted in one run scoring. The Vols couldn’t bring home the runner on third, either, meaning they scored just one run after loading the bases with no outs.
Almost the exact same thing would happen in the ninth inning, only it would be Liberty who would blow a huge opportunity.
Liberty loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth and got the game-tying run to cross home plate after Walsh hit the batter. The Flames had no outs at that point, and victory looked inevitable.
But in the postseason, nothing can be taken for granted.
The Vols survived that huge threat, and they responded in extra innings to prolong their season. The loss eliminates Liberty from the NCAA Tournament, and it pushes Tennessee into the Regional Final with one-seed North Carolina (44-17).
Sean Hunley got the start for the Vols on the mound, but he didn’t make it out of the third inning. Head coach Tony Vitello turned to Garrett Crochet with two outs in the third, and he got the final out of the inning to keep UT’s 3-1 lead intact.
Things took a turn for the worse in the fourth, though.
With two outs, Tyler Galazin whacked a single to center to drive home two runs, tying the game at 3. Both those runs were unearned for Crochet, as UT had a couple miscues in the half inning. But that tie didn’t last long.
Andre Lipcius blasted a two-run home run in the fifth inning to give UT a 5-3 lead. The Flames would cut that lead to 5-4 in the bottom half of the inning, but that would be all the damage they could do.
The two teams exchanged 1-2-3 innings in the sixth, and the Vols went down in order in the seventh as well. After a lead-off hit for Liberty in the bottom of the seventh and then a fly-out, Vitello opted to bring in his closer, Redmond Walsh, for an extended appearance. Walsh immediately induced a double play ball, ending the Liberty threat.
In the top of the eighth, the Vols perfectly executed a hit-and-run and got runners on the corners with only one out. But they couldn’t bring home the runner to push their lead to two runs, and the score remained 5-4 heading into the bottom of the eighth. Liberty couldn’t do anything then, though, and Tennessee looked to try and extend their lead in the top of the ninth.
Again, Tennessee got two runners on with only one out. Pete Derkay and Connor Pavolony were on second and first, respectively, but the Vols could never push either across home plate.
That’s when the bottom of the ninth happened, and Liberty tied up the game. But the Vols pulled off the unthinkable, forced extra innings, then gutted their way to victory on a two-out hit by Jake Rucker.
For Tennessee, the win saved them from elimination and earned them a spot in the Regional Final against host team North Carolina. The Tarheels survived an upset bid by UNC-Wilmington in Game 1 of the Regional and walked off on an error after a three-hour weather delay. On Saturday, North Carolina blasted their way past Liberty, winning 16-1.
The Vols and Tar Heels will play later tonight, approximately at 6:00 PM Eastern. Tennessee will have to beat North Carolina tonight and again on Monday to advance to the Super Regional.