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Evan Russell Slams No. 2 Vanderbilt As No. 3 Tennessee Picks Up Massive Win

Russell showed his power at the plate for Tennessee on Saturday, as he sent the baseball over 1,000 feet in total on the day after he launched three home runs.

Evan Russell must have eaten his Wheaties Saturday morning, as the senior from Lexington, Tenn. showed his strength and delivered a moment that will stay in the Tennessee highlight reel for years.

Having already hit two home runs on the day, it was Russell’s third at-bat that would secure the coveted victory for the Big Orange.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with only one out and the bases loaded, Russell cranked the first pitch he saw. With the Vols trailing by one run, Russell delivered a grand slam, giving the Vols their go-ahead runs to eventually win the game. 

“I kind of lost my mind and went into some sort of altered state,” said The Drive’s Russell Smith after the slam, who was present at the game on Saturday. “That place went absolutely bonkers.”

On Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, No. 3 Tennessee (29-7) defeated No. 2 Vanderbilt (27-6) by a score of 8-4.

“You saw guys literally do whatever they had to do for the jersey they were wearing,” said Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello following the game. “Evan Russell is an in-state kid that has bled orange his whole life.”

Going into the second game of this series, Tennessee needed some kind of spark after losing the first game on Friday night. Especially knowing expected No. 1 overall pick Jack Leiter was on the mound for the Commodores.

But the Vols reached into their bag of tricks on the afternoon and delivered a masterful performance in multiple phases of the game.

Tennessee showed its aggression early by jumping out to a lead on the nation’s best pitcher. They showed resiliency in not being afraid or scared when Vanderbilt took and extended the lead. And they showed their grit, when their backs were against the wall, to stand and deliver a momentous comeback. 

Bartender! Another Shot for Russell!

On Saturday morning, well before the game began, Russell had already gotten a little bit of shine on the day. Russell’s diving catch in foul territory from Friday’s game ended up at No. 2 in the SportsCenter Top 10 Plays segment.

But that wouldn’t be the most memorable part of his day, and the senior might even wind up back on the Top 10 list Sunday.

Vols’ catcher Connor Pavolony got the party started in the fourth inning as he sent a solo shot over the fence for the first score of the game. Then, as the next batter up, Russell would do his best ‘97 to Jordan’s ‘96.

If you didn’t catch the reference, let me put it this way. Pavolony and Russell went YARD back-to-back.

Tennessee jumped out to an early lead as both teams were looking to give some support to their starting pitcher. But thanks to the long ball, Tennessee was the first to land a punch.

However, it would be Vanderbilt who rebounded next, as they took the lead in the sixth inning with three runs. 

Similarly to Friday night, Vanderbilt’s runs were brought on by Tennessee errors, in which the Commodores capitalized.

Third baseman Jake Rucker, who did have an outstanding play earlier in the game, threw a routine ground ball over the head of the first baseman. The throw, which would have effectively ended the inning if completed, allowed Vanderbilt to take advantage of the situation and extend the inning.

While it didn’t cost them the game like it did yesterday, Tennessee has to be better on Sunday. It’s hard to get up in arms about only really one inning of play with crucial mistakes. Although, when you’re playing in a top-5 matchup, it’s really not that hard. Tennessee has to bring its absolute best. We all know that.

Both the ‘Dores and the Vols would both add a run to their total in the seventh inning, but Vanderbilt still held the advantage heading into the eighth. That’s when Russell found his second solo shot of the night.

And then came the eighth inning, in which the entirety of the game and the series would change in an instant. As mentioned earlier, Russell stepped up to the plate, with two home runs already behind him on the day, and launched a missile over the fence for a grand slam.

“It’s nuts,” Vitello said on the performance of Russell against Leiter. “I’ll take the easy way out and just talk about how he hits in general. He’s a guy that wants the big moment first of all.”

Bartender! Another round, please! And make it on the house in Nashville!

Knoxville’s Comeback Kids

“I’m a big believer in that you get something out of every game you play as long as you’re invested.”

Those were Vitello’s words as he spoke about Friday’s tough loss. He continued on to mention how it helped the team prepare for Saturday. And even if Tennessee had lost, there would have still been takeaways even in the defeat.

For consecutive games, Tennessee’s pitchers did an unbelievable job. They continued to keep Tennessee in the game for as long as they could. 

Fifth-year senior Will Heflin was on the mound for Tennessee opposite Leiter. Which, on its own, is enough pressure as is. But Heflin stepped up to the plate- or, in this case, the rubber.

Heflin finished with seven innings pitched and gave up four runs on five hits. He also walked one batter but struck out four on the day.

But ultimately, against the second-best team in the country, with the best pitcher in the league on the opposite mound, throwing five straight scoreless innings to start the game is a masterful performance.

Not to mention, all three of Vanderbilt’s runs in the sixth inning were unearned according to the SEC box score.

The comeback on the day for Tennessee is important on both the smaller and bigger levels. On one hand, the Vols were able to show their resiliency by never backing down after giving up the lead on errors in the middle of the game. They kept grinding, kept swinging, kept making outs, and eventually it paid off.

But on the other hand, Tennessee showed their ability to rebound from an atrocious game on Friday. Chad Dallas was just about the only positive note coming out of the game as Tennessee only managed two hits on the night. So to take that performance, and be able to turn things around the next day against a better lineup, speaks to the talent of Vitello and the coaching staff.

For Vitello though, the attention should point towards the team.

“Now you’re facing [Leiter], who to this point has kind of appeared to be unhittable or unbeatable,” Vitello said after the game, referring to the team’s mindset entering Saturday after a tough loss the day before. “So to show up with that attitude and then carry it throughout the game, including after we gave up a lead, was quite impressive.”

What’s Next?

After both teams took one game, the rubber match is set as two in-state powerhouses will square off on Sunday with the series victory on the line.

On Friday, Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee 5-0. But the Vols were able to even the series on Saturday.

For Tennessee, right-handed pitcher Blade Tidwell will be on the mound Sunday. The freshman from Loretto, Tenn. is 4-1 on the year in his five decisions.

As for the visiting team though, Vanderbilt will send out right-hander Patrick Riley to try to take care of business. Riley is 3-1 in his four decisions so far.

There’s no other way to put it: Tennessee’s win on Saturday was nothing short of outstanding. Russell, the MVP of the series, had himself a day he will never forget. The Vols have brought their A-game in the pitching department all weekend. Which is especially key when playing a team like Vanderbilt.

Tennessee will now have the chance to take the series, effectively winning its biggest series ever. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves just yet. In the meantime, we’ll celebrate the win on Saturday with a grand… yup, a GRAND salami sandwich. 

Back at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, Tennessee will host Vanderbilt for the final game of their series on Sunday. The game will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET and ticket information for the game can be found by clicking the link here.

All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications.

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