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Elite Pitching, Defense Lead Vols to Series-Clinching Win Over Missouri

Blake Burke against Missouri // Photo via UT Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee baseball clinched the weekend series over the Missouri Tigers on Friday night in Knoxville with a 3-2 win led by outstanding pitching and defense.

Drew Beam delivered one of the best starts of his season, Kirby Connell and Aaron Combs came through in relief, and Tennessee arguably had their most impressive game of the season defensively.

On a slow night offensively, Tennessee found other ways to win and clinch the series, similar to its series-clinching win over LSU two weeks ago.

Here’s how it happened in Lindsey Nelson Stadium as Tennessee won their sixth straight SEC series.

Vols Display Elite Defense

In the low-scoring affair, Tennessee’s defense was the highlight.

Catcher Cal Stark made one of the most significant plays of the game in the fourth inning, picking off Jackson Lovich at first to get Beam out of a bases-loaded jam. Lovich was way too far from the bag, making it an easy pickoff. But Stark’s awareness is one of the best parts of his game, and the pickoff was a crucial play in what was a low-scoring affair early on.

“That’s huge because the momentum is on their side a little bit and you’re looking to get an out any way you can and he’s done it in other situations too,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on Stark’s pickoff. “You’re hustling to get to 27 outs as quick as you can so you’ll take them any way you can but yeah to get out of a jam like that, it relieves some stress on the pitcher. It may carry some momentum into the next inning as well mentally for both of those guys that are making up the battery.”

Right-fielder Kavares Tears also had a big night defensively in right field. The redshirt-sophomore beautifully executed a 9-3 double play in the second inning, making a diving catch on a line drive before firing a dart to Blake Burke, who tagged the runner coming back to first.

Tears also made a great throw in the fourth inning to keep a runner at third, preventing an RBI single. Tears’ throw was followed up by Stark’s pickoff, as the pair of great defensive plays kept Missouri off the board.

Shortstop Dean Curley continued the theme of elite defense on Friday night by making a fantastic jumping catch on a hard-hit line drive to prevent a base-hit and end the sixth inning.

Finally, Kirby Connell came through with some key defensive plays in relief for Drew Beam. Connell was responsible for two 1-3 putouts and also made a nice nab on a toss from Blake Burke to finish off a 3-1 putout.

All of Connell’s defensive highlights came in the eighth and ninth innings when Tennessee held a 3-2 lead, so they were key for the Vols to thwart Missouri’s chances of a comeback.

“It was a good night defensively,” Vitello said. “And I don’t know if there’s been any better [night defensively] but regardless, I think this is a staple win defensively leading the way. Last night, the bats kind of led the way, and you talk about – I think you all led the conversation last night about – how many different ways can your team win? And you are going to have to do that. ”

More From RTI: Tennessee Baseball vs. Missouri Game Two LIVE Thread

Drew Beam Turns in Another Great Start

Tennessee starting right-handed pitcher Drew Beam turned in another great start to lead the Vols to their ninth series win of the season.

Early on, Beam did a good job to work around some trouble throughout his outing, as he often does. Beam stranded runners on the corners in the first with a strikeout and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth thanks to some help from Stark.

Beam faced the minimum in the second, third, fifth and seventh while also working around a leadoff hit-by-pitch in the sixth. Tennessee’s great defensive night helped Beam, but the junior was still his typical steady self, delivering another strong outing.

The Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native’s night ended after 7.1 innings and 106 pitches. Beam gave up six hits and two earned runs while walking one batter and striking out eight. The last batter Beam faced, two-hole hitter Trevor Austin, smoked a two-run homer to cut Tennessee’s lead to one run and prevent Beam from recording his first scoreless outing of the season.

While Beam has had better outings on paper this season than he did Friday against Missouri, a case can be made Beam was the most in control he’s been all season on Friday.

Beam has now pitched five or more innings in nine of his 11 starts, six or more innings in five starts and seven or more innings in three starts.

“They were great,” Vitello said about all the arms on Friday. “I think [Beam has] established himself to be able to throw four pitches for a strike and at this point just not trying to get too cute…. basically the brand he has brought to the table is a strong one and it’s good enough. So he just needs to be himself. Similar to a good hitter on our team could go up-and-down the lineup, they don’t need to go outside themselves. He just needs to be himself and when he is, he is pretty good for us.”

Senior left-handed pitcher Kirby Connell relieved Beam in the eighth and got four consecutive outs before junior right-handed pitcher Aaron Combs got the final out of the ballgame after allowing a baserunner via a fielding error of his own.

In getting the tying run to fly out and end the game, Combs earned his second save of the season.

“We kind of had mapped it out,” Vitello said on Combs getting the final out. “That occasion was not [me being] a fan of two nights in a row having to go out there with two outs and having to make a change for the last out, but it was kind of what we had mapped out for the rest of the game. And rather than have regrets, we went with it, and I think everyone standing here knows Kirby’s capable of getting that guy out. But he’s a really good hitter, and Combs is capable of getting him out, too. He just couldn’t put a pitchfork in that ball.”

Vols Do Just Enough Offensively

It was an abnormally slow night for Tennessee’s offense, as the Vols mustered just three runs on eight hits. 

But thanks to Beam, Connell and a handful of great defensive plays, three runs were enough.

Tennessee struck first in the bottom of the fourth inning after an uneventful first three frames. Dylan Dreiling put Tennessee in business by legging out a two-out infield single after an impressive at-bat. Dean Curley then singled to put Dreiling at third, who scored on a wild pitch.

Curley came home shortly thereafter thanks to Hunter Ensley, who roped a double deep into left field.

Tennessee couldn’t find any rhythm at the plate until the seventh inning against reliever Brock Lucas, as starter Logan Lunceford delivered a solid five-inning start for the Tigers.

Stark kicked off the frame with a double off the top of the right-center wall. After advancing on a wild pitch, Stark was brought home by an RBI groundout from Burke.

The RBI grounder proved to be a massive insurance run for the Vols, as Austin’s two-run homer for Missouri came in the eighth.

Up Next

Tennessee will look to sweep Missouri on Saturday in game three. First pitch is at 12 p.m. ET in Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Vols’ starting pitcher is to be determined.

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