Will Heflin didn’t know he was starting game one of this weekend’s three-game series with Georgia State until late in the day on Friday.
No. 18 Tennessee’s usual game one starter, junior right-hander Chad Dallas, was scratched from making his third start of the season out of precaution due to soreness in his oblique. Dallas did his best to give it a go, but the Vols (9-2) didn’t feel it was best to tempt fate given the cold weather and hamstring injury that has already sidelined Jackson Leath.
So, instead of Dallas, Vols head coach Tony Vitello turned to the senior lefty on the bump. Heflin (W, 2-0) delivered, allowing just one earned run on six hits in seven innings of work. He struck out eight and didn’t walk a single batter.
“You hate to be over-dramatic, but what he did overall was seize the day,” Vitello said of Heflin’s performance. “That was pretty special. Now, he could have just gone out there and taken advantage of the opportunity and won the game, but he did it in spectacular fashion by pitching how he’s capable of.”
Heflin went to work while the offense got to Georgia State (4-7) ace Ryan Watson (L, 1-1) early. Three of Tennessee’s six runs came in the first two innings courtesy of three balks from Watson.
Liam Spence and Pete Derkay led off the game with back-to-back singles for Tennessee, putting runners on first and second. Watson’s first balk advanced the runners, before his second balk allowed Spence to score and move Derkay over to third. Jordan Beck then stepped to the plate and scored Derkay on a sac fly.
Spence drove in the third run of the game on an RBI groundout in the second inning after Watson’s third balk moved Max Ferguson over to third, after Ferguson reached on a walk. It pushed Tennessee’s lead to 3-0 and proved to be the only runs Watson (L, 1-1) would give up in 5.0 innings of work.
“It was guys just fighting at the plate,” Vitello said of the early offense. “Guys just found a way to scrap and get on base, and that opened up the door for a couple of better swings later in the game. We made their guy work and he’s awfully good.”
Heflin’s only trouble came in the fourth inning. Georgia State tallied back-to-back singles with one out before Heflin made an errant throw to first on a bunt to load the bases. Heflin wasted zero time moving on from the error, as on the very next pitch, he got a ground ball to shortstop that resulted in a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“That was massive,” Heflin said of the double play. “Liam (Spence) and (Max Ferguson) did a great job of rolling that up. You’re not going to go through a game unscathed and even when you’re rolling, there’s typically one inning were you either have to limit the damage or scoot out of it like I did right there.
“What was working for me was just throwing strikes. That was the biggest deal, not having a walk. And then mixing speeds — I threw a lot of changeups tonight. And we were error free. I was the only error and that was on that bunt I casted up the line a bit. That’s a recipe for success.
The only run Heflin gave up came on a solo home run from Georgia State left fielder Josh Smith in the seventh inning, Heflin’s last inning of work. Sophomore left-hander Kirby Connell relieved Heflin to begin the eighth and pitched two scoreless innings of work to close out the game.
Tennessee had pushed its lead to 6-0 in the inning prior to the Panthers’ homer. The Vols quickly loaded the bases in the sixth inning courtesy of a double from Luc Lipcius, a Ferguson walk and catchers interference with Christian Scott at the plate. Spence then drove in his second run of the game on an RBI single before Derkay brought in a run on an RBI groundout. Jake Rucker then hit a sacrifice fly to right field.
“There was a little different vibe in the air,” Vitello said of Friday night’s game. “Really since we’ve been at Georgia Southern. I think our guys were feeling good and the attitude carried over into the at-bats.”
Game two between Tennessee and Georgia State is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. Freshman RHP Blade Tidwell (0-1, 2.25 ERA) is expected to start for the Vols, while either RHP Trey Horton (0-0, 3.68 ERA) or LHP Cameron Jones (0-0) is projected to start for the Panthers, respectively.