A few short weeks ago, Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt was the poster boy for Tennessee’s offensive inconsistencies. Coming off the bench in Thursday night’s series opener against Mississippi State, Merritt furthered his case to be the poster boy for these resurgent Vols.
For the second time in six days, Merritt hit a walk-off solo homer to give Tennessee baseball pivotal series opening wins.
“I’m old and I calm down,” Merritt joked about his late game success. “I’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of at-bats.”
Tennessee needed that composure in the worst way in the series opener against Mississippi State. When Hunter Hiles hit a solo homer in the top half of the ninth inning the Bulldogs fully erased a six-run Tennessee lead.
Mississippi State had all the momentum and a Tennessee team that’s struggled displaying resiliency this season was on its heels. Merritt didn’t let the Bulldogs euphoria last long, hitting a walk off homer on the second pitch of the last half of the inning.
“(KC) Hunt spins it a lot,” Merritt said of the at-bat. “It’s funny, I was talking to (Josh) Elander and I was like, ‘Man, should I just sell spin? I mean, he just threw five sliders to C-Mo right-handed before.’ They had the lefty, and if you bring in the righty to face two righties, they’re going to spin it. He was like, ‘Well, be on the fastball first pitch and if he spins it, that’s what he wants to do.’ He threw the first-pitch slider for a ball and I just knew I had him if he put one in the zone. I was just seeing it up and got a good swing on it.”
Merritt’s walk-off against Mississippi State comes on the heels of his 12th inning walk-off in last week’s series opener against Vanderbilt. The two clutch hits are Merritt’s first walk-offs in college baseball and show the senior’s progression over his college career.
“When I was younger, I remember going up there and you would’ve thought I was going to break the bat in half I was so amped up,” Merritt said. “But now, I’m just able to calm myself down. … I want it to look the same in my approach. If you prepare yourself the right way, you’re not nervous. You’re more excited. I think people tense up and try to do much because they feel like they’re not prepared, but I try to make sure I never feel like that.”
The fifth-year senior is extremely mature on-and-off the field. Merritt noted how the Vols’ trash talk against Mississippi State woke the Bulldogs up and his ability to push through adversity this season has been crucial for both him and his new team.
“I think his maturity,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “I know you guys spoke to him at some point tonight and he probably sounds like he can run for public office. We’re fortunate enough he just runs for public office in our locker room. He’s one of many guys and I said it to you guys earlier on that it kind of helped the flow and things that go on in the locker room because of his leadership.”
Merritt’s leadership has been a critical win for a young Tennessee team trying to find itself but don’t fool yourself— the outfielder’s on field production has been just as crucial in the last week. Merritt has become Tennessee’s walk-off king.
The resurgent Vols have needed his heroics badly in the last week.