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Mistakes Cripple Vols in Loss to Grand Canyon

Mistakes Cripple Vols in Loss to Grand Canyon
Tennessee Baseball in the Knoxville Super Regional. Photo by Ric Butler/Rocky Top Insider.

PHOENIX, Ariz– Tennessee Baseball took Brazell Field on Grand Canyon University’s campus to take on the GCU Antelopes Saturday night in Phoenix. Looking to bounce back after Friday night’s season-opening loss, poor base-running and a few key defensive mistakes crippled Tennessee, and the Vols lost their second consecutive game, 4-3.

The Vols scored three runs in the fourth and fifth innings to take a 3-2 lead heading into the sixth, but the Lopes scored in back-to-back innings to regain the lead.

Tennessee’s pitching was solid once again, but too many offensive mistakes thwarted any chance of a late-game surge.

Here’s what happened in the second-ranked Vols’ second loss of the season.

Grand Canyon Strikes First, but Chase Burns Finds a Groove

Tennessee was the road team for the second consecutive night and took the plate first. Starting center fielder Hunter Ensley, who made his first career start, worked a one-out walk to give Tennessee an early baserunner. However, Christian Moore flied out to RF, and Blake Burke bounced a grounder into Grand Canyon starting pitcher Connor Markl’s glove to strand the redshirt sophomore.

Like Chase Dollander on Friday, Chase Burns didn’t have the best first inning. The sophomore gave up a one-out single before elite short stop prospect Jacob Wilson roped an RBI triple down the right field line to give Grand Canyon the early lead.

Burns soon settled in, though, much like Dollander did on Friday. The Gallatin, Tennessee, native struck out a pair to end the first and strand Wilson at third, and he followed it up with a 1-2-3 inning in the second.

The Vols couldn’t get on the board in the second or third inning, with poor base-running hurting Tennessee in each frame. Austen Jaslove delivered a hard-hit single to Grand Canyon’s second baseman Zack Gregory, but Tennessee’s starting shortstop tried to reach second base and couldn’t beat the throw.

“Jassy tried to make a hustle play going to second,” Vitello said regarding the play. “And that wasn’t the thing to do with the netting that’s behind you (first base line) as we talk here now.”

Tennessee got on base again in the third thanks to a Charlie Taylor leadoff single, but Taylor was caught stealing during Hunter Ensley’s at-bat for the second out of the inning. Ensley struck out shortly thereafter, keeping the Vols scoreless through three.

Cal Stark’s Long Ball Gives Vols the Lead

The Big Orange didn’t stay scoreless long, though. JuCo transfer catcher Cal Stark became the first Volunteer to leave the yard in 2023, knocking a two-run bomb over the left field wall in the top of the fourth to score himself and Zane Denton, who laid down a single in the prior at-bat.

“He’s been good for us since he’s been on campus,” Vitello said on Stark. “After being at a junior college for a couple years, he gets to return home, and I know it means a lot to him to wear a Vol uniform, and I think he’s fully capable behind the plate, but it’s nice to know he’s good with the bat as well.”

Stark hit the home run after getting a strike called on him for stepping out of the box. Despite the violation, the Knoxville native kept his composure and drilled a two-run shot to give UT the lead.

Burns preserved Tennessee’s lead in the bottom of the fourth, dealing his second 1-2-3 inning of the night. After the fourth inning, Burns had faced the minimum in the past three frames and recorded six strikeouts.

“He was good. He was really good,” Vitello said on Burns’ performance. “He went out there, the one pitch he wished he could’ve taken back was the 0-2 pitch, double down the line, and that was kind of the beginning of the end of his night. I think the next two guys reached base. So we took him before he got to about 75-80 pitches, which is what we were looking to do. But he was really impressive at times.”

More From RTI: Tony Vitello Discusses Outfield Performance in Season-Opening Loss

Tennessee added a run in the fifth thanks to a Christian Moore RBI single to score Jared Dickey, who had sent a one-out RBI triple to center field. It looked like the Vols were going to add more runs to their lead, as Moore’s single and a pair of walks loaded the bases, but Cal Stark grounded out to strand them.

Grand Canyon matched Tennessee’s run with one of their own in the bottom of the fifth, as Burns ran into some trouble with one out. Burns gave up a double to first baseman Eli Paton, who advanced to third on a wild pitch and came home on a sac fly to cut Tennessee’s lead to one run. After Burns allowed a two-out single to put runners on first and second for GCU, Vitello pulled Burns for senior left-hander Kirby Connell.

Connell Logs Massive Strikeout

Connell logged what may have been Tennessee’s most significant strikeout of the game, as the senior worked back from a 3-0 count to get Zack Gregory swinging and end the inning.

“He kinda tricked them there with the 3-0 count and came back with three really good pitches,” Vitello noted on Connell’s performance. “But whatever it takes to get an out in a crucial situation. Good team leader, great kid to have around, but also Mr. Reliable on the mound.”

After they couldn’t get anything going at the plate in the top of the sixth, the Vols had a disastrous start to the bottom of the inning.

Charlotte transfer Andrew Lindsey took over the mound and was shaky to start. Lindsey gave up a leadoff single to star shortstop Jacob Wilson, who advanced to second on a wild pitch. Cleanup hitter Elijah Buries then laid down a beautiful bunt, and a Charlie Taylor throwing error allowed Wilson to score and for Buries to reach second.

Solid defense and favorable calls kept the game tied, though. Lindsey’s throw to Taylor was in time to tag Buries out at home when Homer Bush hit a dribbler to the mound. Taylor caught Bush stealing second shortly thereafter for the final out of the inning.

Lindsey wasn’t perfect, but he never gave up an earned run. Overall, the senior did well in his first appearance in orange and white.

“He was good. You gotta be ready to make plays, and that includes him,” Vitello said regarding Lindsey. “He made a miraculous play there losing his feet. He’s a guy that typically throws a lot of strikes, and he’s a ground ball guy. We made a few plays behind him, but not enough.”

Grand Canyon Re-Takes Lead and Holds Off Vols

Blake Burke grounded into a double play in what was a quick, scoreless top of the seventh for Tennessee, and Grand Canyon took their second lead of the game in the bottom of the frame.

Eli Paton worked a leadoff walk, and leadoff hitter Cade Verdusco hit a single right to Austen Jaslove. Jaslove made an incredible play to snare the ground ball, but his throw was too low for Burke to scoop, and Paton scored on the error to take the lead.

Freshman outfielder Dylan Dreiling made his season debut at the plate in the top of the eighth with Denton on first and two outs. Dreiling connected for a hard-hit single to right field, but Denton rounded second and couldn’t beat the throw to third base. Verdusco’s throw to third was a rocket, but Denton wasn’t particularly close to beating it at all.

Thus, Tennessee entered the bottom of the eighth trailing Grand Canyon 4-3 due to more substandard base-running.

Lindsey stranded a pair of Antelopes to keep the score at 4-3 heading into the ninth, but the Vols went down in order in the ninth to end the game.

Tennessee will look to avoid going 0-3 this weekend in Arizona when the Vols take on UC San Diego tomorrow in Mesa, Arizona. First pitch is set for 2 p.m. ET.

“Got one day left,” Vitello said. “If you worry about the fans too much, you’re going to make it even worse and the fans are going to like you less. But there’s families and people that came from the west coast to see you. We came here for a good reason. Great tournament, great venues, and great competition. So you gotta make sure your worth your salt.”

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