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Kirby Connell Delivers In Season’s Biggest Moment To Date

KNOXVILLE, Tn — Campbell had answers for SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander in Tennessee’s, 12-7, win Saturday night. The Fighting Camels lacked answers for soft-throwing reliever Kirby Connell. 

The left-handed pitcher kept Campbell off balance in his second-longest and most effective outing of the season. Connell cooled off a red-hot Campbell offense with Tennessee on its heels.

“I came in in a tough situation and I’ve done that a couple times and it’s been good,” Connell said. “I’ve been able to get out of it. And basically, all I do is just let my defense play, keep them off guard with all different kinds of pitches and just let my defense play and let the offense do what they do.”

Connell spent much of the first half of the 2022 season adapting to a new, smaller role in Tennessee’s bullpen.

The lefty stormed onto the scene last season as sophomore, earning a significant amount of high leverage innings as Redmond Walsh struggled to open conference play.

Connell pitched in five of Tennessee’s first nine conference games, throwing over two innings in three of those outings and earning a save in the process. Connell’s role waned as the season went on but he remained a key cog in the bullpen.

Fast forward to this season where Tennessee’s pitching depth is significantly better despite losing two weekend starters and its most used bullpen arm. LHP Will Mabrey broke onto the scene and the left-handed Walsh returned for his super-senior season.

Connell became Tennessee’s third left-handed arm out of the bullpen and Tony Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson mostly used him as a lefty specialist. The junior averaged under 0.2 innings pitched in his first seven conference outings and became just as well known for his long blonde hair and handlebar mustache as his pitching prowess.

The 56 game college baseball regular season has its ebbs and flows and Connell kept recording outs in his short outings, ready for an expanded role whenever it may come.

“Coming in, we lost a lot of guys from last year’s team,” Connell said. “We had a lot of guys come back in the in relief (roles). So basically, (I acknowledged that I had to) find a new role. Worry about the next thing, and when your time comes, you’ve got to take it and run.”

Those opportunities slowly increased as Mabrey ran into some midseason struggles and Connell kept having success. The South Carolina native threw 7.2 innings in his final six SEC outings of the regular season and entered postseason play with a 1.17 ERA.

Connell’s increasing role culminated Saturday night as Vitello turned to him in a pinch in the third inning. In an exciting game with an abundance of turns, Connell’s first two pitches proved to be two of the game’s biggest.

Entering with Campbell leading 4-0 and the bases still loaded, Connell induced a Tyler Halstead fly out to end the inning.

Connell ran into a little bit of trouble in the fourth inning but cruised from there. As Tennessee’s offense provided much needed run support, Connell stifled the Fighting Camels, striking out four batters in four innings pitched.

“If I am going to hand the ball off to a guy when it’s hitting the fan, you might as well go to the guy with a mustache because he takes good care of us,” Vitello said. “You’re going to feel good about the effort he gives you. He’d been out there before when it didn’t go great, but there are really no regrets from any side when he’s out there.”

After 3.2 scoreless innings pitched, Campbell finally tallied a run off of the lefty reliever thanks to a Drake Pierson two-run blast. The long ball weakened Connell’s box score, but did little to minimize the importance of his outing.

Entering with Campbell on the brink of breaking the game open, Connell stabilized Tennessee and earned his fourth win of the season in the process.

Campbell gave Tennessee its first dose of adversity in the NCAA Tournament. Connell’s response assures that Vol nation knows him for far more than his phenomenal facial hair.

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