Through five weekends of SEC play, Tennessee baseball was 5-10 against conference opponents.
The Vols struggled in a grueling three-week stretch that featured series against three top-five teams in LSU, Florida and Arkansas, going 2-7.
Most recently, Tennessee was on the wrong end of a sweep in Fayetteville against the Razorbacks, and they followed it up with an abysmal 12-5 midweek loss to Tennessee Tech in Knoxville.
With in-state rival Vanderbilt, another top-five team, coming to Lindsey Nelson Stadium for a three-game series, Tennessee had an opportunity to try and turn their season around to begin the second half of the SEC schedule.
Friday night, inside a packed Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the Vols started the second half of conference play the best way possible: a comeback, walk-off win.
To Andrew Lindsey, who served as the starting pitcher for the Vols Friday and was excellent in 6.2 innings of work, the win can be used as a ‘firestarter’ as the Vols look to finish SEC play much better than they started.
“It’s a firestarter,” Lindsey said about the win. “It’s what you need at this point in the year, and we look to continue to build on it. [We have] a lot of confidence in our guys, I always have confidence in our guys but maybe for them, it was a personal confidence boost, so hopefully, we can see that continue.”
Tennessee outfielder Griffin Merritt, who hit the walk-off home run in the 12th inning to win the game, shared Lindsey’s sentiment that this win came at a much-need time.
“A bunch, we needed something like this,” Merritt said on the win. “In any shape or form, this team needed a comeback win against a good team — a kickstart, really. We need to take this energy. It is a quick turnaround. We have a game in 15 hours. We have to turn that around and get ready to play tomorrow.”
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On Thursday, prior to the Vanderbilt series, head coach Tony Vitello said that despite all the recent losses, there was a reason for optimism, given they had only played half of the SEC schedule.
And on Friday, Tennessee started that second half off with their biggest win of the season–a win Vitello noted is something the team can rally behind.
“It does a lot,” Vitello said on the win. “It gives the guys something to rally behind and realize that there is a lot of ball left to be played. It gets you started off on the right foot.
“So often we’ve talked – us as a group – how the weekend goes and all that. Well, it’s become a little bit of result-based confidence, which is what I was alluding to. It will lead you to a roller coaster. But, everybody – I don’t care if it’s Kobe [Bryant]– everyone is a little bit of a results based confidence. If things go well, it’s a little bit more positive about coming to the park and realizing what you are capable of doing as a group.”
Additionally, after Vitello questioned the team’s toughness following the Arkansas sweep, Tennessee fought in a way we haven’t seen the Vols fight in nearly a month.
“It was very encouraging,” Vitello said on the team’s fight. “I think the toughness in this game and what we needed stemmed from Andrew Lindsey… the courage he pitched with – and that was coach [Frank] Anderson’s word. He gave us courage and it kind of disseminated throughout he dugout and I think it bled onto the field. He set the tone with just the way he competed.”
More than Tennessee realizing what they are capable of doing or playing with more fight, the Vols’ win doubles as a ‘kickstart’ for the Vols to better their NCAA Tournament resumé.
Ole Miss squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as the 64th-seed in the 2022 tournament, and the Rebels were 14-16 in conference play. To finish league play with 14 wins, Tennessee needed to go 9-6 to close out the season entering the Vanderbilt series.
With a road series against an extremely tough South Carolina team and a series against a top-15 team in Kentucky, the Vols need a good performance this weekend against the Commodores.
The Vols undoubtedly have the upper hand entering the rest of the series, and we’ll see if Vitello’s squad finds a way to win their second SEC series of the season as the weekend progresses.
The first pitch for game two in Knoxville is Saturday at Noon ET, and game three will begin at 1 p.m. ET in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.