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No. 19 Vols begin 2021 season with sweep of Georgia Southern

No. 19 Tennessee defeated Georgia Southern 7-3 on Sunday afternoon courtesy of Liam Spence’s 12th-inning grand slam. The win in extra innings completed a three-game sweep of the Eagles to begin the 2021 season.

“It took my breath away and a couple of other guys mentioned they almost passed out in the dugout because they got so excited,” Vols head coach Tony Vitello said following the game. “The guy is a winner. You’d think his roommate Max Ferguson gets it done, but when he doesn’t, his buddy does. You could see the focus in that situation.”

Spence’s grand slam was the first runs for the Vols (3-0) since a two-run home run off the bat of Jordan Beck in the third inning to take a 3-1 lead. The dramatic 12th inning began with a Jackson Greer single through the left side and a double from Jorel Ortega to put runners on second and third with no outs. Evan Russell then walked to set up Spence’s first home run of the season.

Tennessee was able to win in extra innings because of the pitching performance of starter Elijah Pleasants and Jackson Leath. Pleasants made the start and delivered a strong 5.0 innings of work. His lone mistake was a two-run home run he gave up to Georgia Southern (0-3) first baseman Noah Ledford to tie the game at 3-all in the fifth.

Pleasants allowed just two earned runs on five hits. The junior right-hander only struck out one, but limited the Eagles to just two extra base hits on 63 pitchers. Seven of his 15 outs were on ground balls.

Leath picked up right where he left off. The senior right-hander allowed just three hits in 5.2 innings of work, striking out six and giving up just two walks. Leath only allowed a run on 78 pitches. His biggest pitch came in the bottom of the ninth when he forced a 6-4-3 double play with runners on the corners and one out to send the game to extra innings.

Senior right-hander Sean Hunley (W, 1-0) picked up the win. He relieved Leath in the 11th prior to Spence’s grand slam in the 12th and then picked up three consecutive outs to close out the game after Georgia Southern put runners on first and second to begin the inning.

“Our guys were ready for the challenge,” Vitello said. “Jackson Leath had an unbelievable performance out of relief throwing that many pitches and then we felt good handing the ball off to (Sean) Hunley. He’s composed in any situation.

“It all started with Elijah. He gave us a great start. We didn’t play great defense behind him and it didn’t bother him at all. I’m not so sure that would have been the case freshman year. He looked like an incredibly mature pitcher and gave us a great chance to win.”

Tennessee beat Southern 5-3 in game one on Friday evening. Beck sparked the offense with two big RBI hits, including his first home run of the year, while junior Chad Dallas was dominant on the mound, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

The Vols won once again by a score of 5-3 in game two on Saturday afternoon. Sophomore outfielder Drew Gilbert hit two home runs, including a two-run shot in the ninth inning to win the game. Junior third baseman Jake Rucker drove in UT’s other two runs with a clutch two-out single in the eighth inning to tie the game at three.

Redmond Walsh (1-0) picked up the win after picking up the save in Friday’s series opener. The redshirt senior lefty tossed two shutout innings in relief, allowing a pair of hits. Vols’ true freshman pitcher Blade Tidwell got the starting nod in his collegiate debut and was solid in four innings of work, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits while striking out two.

“That’s a regional team we just played,” Tony Vitello said. “I feel confident saying that. To me, they appear to be an SEC-type club with the talent they have. We were just fortunate to do a couple more things than they were today. Really all three games could have gone a different way if one play or another would have went a different way.”

Tennessee now turns its attention to a two-game series with Arkansas Pine-Bluff. The Vols will play host on Tuesday and Wednesday with both games scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. ET. It’ll mark the beginning of nine straight home games.

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