No. 9 Vols walk-off No. 14 LSU in series finale to sweep Tigers

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Vols first baseman Luc Lipcius hit a walk-off single with the bases loaded on Sunday afternoon to complete a sweep of No. 14 LSU. No. 9 Tennessee’s 3-1 win in the series finale was the second walk-off win of the day.

The sweep was Tennessee’s (21-4, 5-1 SEC) first of LSU (16-8, 1-5 SEC) since 2008. It entered the weekend having lost eight-straight and 15 out of 16 to the Tigers. Tennessee’s 5-1 record to start conference play is its best start since 2001 when it started 8-1.

“It says a lot about the team, but it also says a lot about Knoxville as a baseball community,” Vols head baseball coach Tony Vitello said following the game. “Call it a sleeping giant if you want, there’s a lot of good baseball around here.

“The last couple of teams have knocked down some walls. I mean literally. To my right and to my left we have new stuff going on in our facility. Nothing major, but there are things that have happened because of the way our guys have worked and the way they’ve played.”

Lipcius’ walk-off came in the bottom of the eighth inning in the seven-inning game. Liam Spence led off the inning with a single up the middle. After advancing to second on a ground ball, he advanced to third on a balk by the LSU pitcher, which prompted the Tigers to intentionally walk both Jake Rucker and Drew Gilbert to load the bases. Jordan Beck struck out for the second out of the inning, but Lipcius picked Beck up and laced a single to centerfield for the win.

“Wins like today can give our guys momentum literally throughout the entire year because it’s a top program, there’s top talent,” Vitello said. “It does mean a little bit more and it does give you confidence.”

True freshman Blade Tidwell started for the Vols in the series finale and was dominant once again. Tidwell pitched 5.2 innings and allowed just two earned runs. Though he gave up eight hits, he struck out seven batters in his first career conference start at home.

“Yeah, that guy,” Vitello said of Tidwell’s performance. “He’s alright, huh? Just another good outing for him. His evolution as a pitcher is going on right in front of us and it’s going to be fun to watch.

“He’s starting to shake (off pitches) a little bit more on pitches that we call and that’s why the best pitchers I’ve been around have gotten that way because they evolve each time out. Anyone in Knoxville or the state of Tennessee now knows Blade is really good and probably a lot of other people.”

Tidwell didn’t give up his first run of the game until the top of the fifth inning when LSU designated hitter Cade Beloso hit an opposite field solo home run to left. Beloso’s homer barely got over the wall and cut the Tennessee lead to 2-1.

The Tigers would tie the game in the top of the sixth to eventually force extra innings and chase Tidwell from the game. After LSU shortstop Jordan Thompson singled up the middle to make it 2-2, Vols right-hander Sean Hunley relieved Tidwell and inherited runners on first and second with two outs. Hunley (W, 4-0) struck out the first batter he faced to get the Vols out of the inning and prevent further damage.

“I haven’t had two wins in a day like this before,” Hunley said. “It’s a very good momentum swing for the rest of the season and for next week against Alabama and Western Carolina on Tuesday. Hopefully we can keep it going.

“Blade was a little timid at the start of the season which is normal for a freshman. He’s done really well and he’s growing into his mechanics. He’s throwing everything for strikes with a whole lot of confidence and he has a little bit of crazy in him, which helps at times.”

Hunley would pitch 2.1 innings scoreless innings to pick up his second win of the game after pitching in the resumed game earlier in the afternoon. He allowed just one hit while striking out two and not allowing a walk.

“When (Hunley) is in there you can just kind of sit back,” Vitello said. “There’s other times you’re going up and down the roster but there’s a sense of comfort for the coaching staff which means that’s gotta carry over to the players, too.”

Tennessee scored two runs over the first three innings to jump out to an early 2-0 lead on LSU starter AJ Labas. Gilbert recorded an RBI groundout in the first inning before Jordan Beck did the same in the third. Labas pitched well over seven innings, only giving up those two early runs on four hits. He walked two and struck out three.

The Vols now turn their attention to a midweek contest with Western Carolina on Tuesday night. They’ll then travel to Tuscaloosa over the weekend to take on an Alabama (15-9, 1-5 SEC) team that was swept by Ole Miss over the weekend.