Just a small handful of plays separated Tennessee from Alabama in Friday night’s series opener at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. A few strong defensive plays from Alabama and a few poor defensive plays and poor hitting luck led to the Crimson Tide handing Tennessee its first loss, 6-3, in SEC play.
It’s Tennessee’s (31-3, 12-1 SEC) second straight loss following a 23-game losing streak, and Alabama’s seventh SEC win in its last eight games.
Back-to-back losses is normal in baseball and Tennessee won’t be hitting the panic button, but this does mark the first time all season that someone has put the Vols on their heels.
Tennessee Friday night starter Chase Burns turned in his second straight poor start. The right-hander looked like his usual self early but solo home runs from Owen Diodati and Jim Jarvis started a small unraveling.
Burns came back out to pitch the fourth inning in a tie game, but couldn’t get an out allowing Diodati’s second home run of the game, a single and a walk.
Alabama’s seven hits off Burns marked the freshman’s career high. Entering last week’s series with Missouri, Burns had pitched five innings in every start, allowing just five earned runs all season.
In the last two weeks, Burns has given up six earned runs in 5.2 innings pitched. If there’s a long term concern coming out of Tennessee’s first SEC loss of the season, it’s Burns’ second straight poor outing.
“This week, that first inning one of the better hitters in the league does a nice job staying at two strikes,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “It’s not like he punished the ball but he got a hit. Otherwise, that first inning every ball he threw kind of looked different, had conviction. A really good first inning and then I don’t know if it bothered him giving up a solo shot or not back-to-back innings … as they kind of chipped away there the momentum kind of started to swing and he didn’t throw as well.”
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came directly following the end of Burns’ outing. LHP Will Mabrey relieved the freshman and coaxed Dominic Tamez into what should have been an easy 6-4-3 double play. Instead the ball went through Cortland Lawson’s legs. Instead of a 3-2 game with a runner on third and two-outs it was a 4-2 game with runners on first and second with nobody out.
A bunt single followed by a sac fly allowed Alabama to expand its lead to 5-2. If Tennessee doesn’t make the defensive mistake they exit the inning down either 3-2 or 4-2.
Compare that to the half inning before when Alabama right fielder William Hamiter made an impressive diving catch to rob Cortland Lawson of a two-RBI double.
Hamiter’s spectacular catch stranded two runners in the third inning and marked the eighth runner Tennessee stranded on base in the first three innings.
“You can control whether you square the baseball up or not like Cortland Lawson does,” Vitello said. “You don’t have any control over the guy making a diving catch. Ideally you would like to bunch up your stuff and activity like they did in one inning. They had a big inning, we never did that, but we did have some things going for us all over the place until again that momentum shifted a little bit there. … The beginning half of the game is where we had an opportunity to produce more on the scoreboard.”
From there, Alabama starter Garrett McMillan got into a groove allowing just two earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched.
Tennessee’s inability to take advantage of its scoring opportunities early cost them as they got just two baserunners the rest of the game.
The Vols will have plenty of motivation for game two of the weekend series after Alabama’s postgame celebration sparked a fire under Tennessee.
“I think just be ready before they will be ready,” Mabrey said. “ I think we are already looking onto the next game. Like V(itello) was saying in the huddle, he is ready to play a game right now. I think we are going to come back tomorrow hot. They don’t really have a chance in my opinion. They were also partying like they thought they won the World Series. We will let them know how that tastes tomorrow.”
First pitch of game two between the Vols and Crimson Tide is set for 6 p.m. ET.