Good. Bye. Baseball.
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) May 15, 2021
After dropping the first game to the top-ranked team in the nation in crushing fashion on Friday, the Tennessee Volunteers delivered a special moment in what could very well wind up the game of the regular season on Saturday.
In the bottom of the ninth inning at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Saturday, the Vols were down 7-5. But with two men on base and no outs, Max Ferguson stepped up to the plate. He locked, loaded, and cranked a no-doubter home-run over the right-field fence for his second long-ball on the day.
Behind the walk-off from Ferguson, No. 4 Tennessee (39-12, 18-8 SEC) defeated No. 1 Arkansas (38-10, 18-8 SEC) by a score of 8-7 in the second game of their weekend series.
“I was thinking bunt all the way until [Vitello] told me it was my call,” said Ferguson after the game. “Then Coach [Frank] Anderson walked over, and I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘I want a three-run jimmy.’”
Saturday’s contest epitomized why this Tennessee baseball team has been so beloved in the community this season. The team, behind head coach Tony Vitello, played with the grit, the heart, and the fearlessness that they have all year.
“It’s so freakin’ exciting to come to the park every day and play with these guys and play for these fans,” said Will Heflin, who was Tennessee’s starting pitcher on Saturday.
As far as the nine innings in the game go, there was no shortage of drama. In Friday’s game fans were waiting for runs that never came, and at times throughout the game Saturday, that same thought felt eerily similar.
The Vols jumped out to another quick lead in the first inning and even gave themselves an extra insurance run in the fourth to extend their lead to three. The Hogs would score the next five runs in the game, but from the seventh inning on, Tennessee always had an answer to what Arkansas did in the top half of the frame.
Tennessee had to scratch and claw their way to the finish line, but at the end of the day, it was all worth it. Ferguson truly delivered one of the most special plays of this Tennessee baseball regular season.
Tennessee’s Third Act Climax
Often times in the world of film or theater, a story is split up into three parts. And usually, the third and final act is the one that gives the audience the reason why they tuned in, or paid money, in the first place.
That is essentially how this baseball game went. Out of the 15 total runs scored in the game, 12 of those came in the sixth inning or beyond. Both teams scored at least one run in each of the final three innings, and it truly felt like two heavyweight boxers going back and forth.
Ferguson, to no one’s surprise, is the MVP of the day. The junior second baseman finished the day with three hits, three runs, four RBI’s, and two home runs. Oh yeah, and one of those just so happened to be the walk-off in the ninth inning. Jake Rucker also tallied three hits on the day, and Jordan Beck went yard on one of his two hits against the Hogs.
Connor Pavolony returned to the starting lineup for the first time since injuring his hand against Vanderbilt and ended up being directly wrapped up in the final inning.
Pavolony started out the ninth inning with a sharp single to the outfield. And while he was subbed out for a pinch-runner afterward, that run still ended up being part of the winning play.
There’s no doubt that Tennessee’s discipline at the plate put them in a position to win the game on Saturday. But in reality, the win on Saturday was set up by their discipline on Friday.
The Hogs top pitcher, Kevin Kopps, was unavailable on Saturday after throwing 67 pitches the game before throwing 67 pitches the game before. Even though it didn’t factor into a win on Friday, Tennessee’s consistent never-say-die mentality actually ended up being one of the main reasons why Arkansas was susceptible late on Saturday.
I don't know if this has been mentioned by anyone, but I don't know if that walk-off happens without Tennessee's plate discipline against Kevin Kopps last night. Tennessee capitalized on his off day to absolute perfection. And they NEEDED to.
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) May 15, 2021
Heflin Shines, But Tennessee Has Areas of Improvement Ahead
Will Heflin was magnificent for the Vols on Saturday afternoon and held off the Hogs high-powered attack as long as he could. The senior pitcher dominated to start out the game. In his first five innings pitched, Heflin did not allow a run.
You can’t keep a team as good as Arkansas down for a whole game though, and the Hogs did start to solve Heflin’s puzzle in the sixth inning. The Hogs launched two home runs in the sixth off of Heflin.
But all in all, Heflin only allowing three hits, three runs, and one walk, while striking out six, is exactly the kind of numbers you want to see towards the start of postseason play.
Even if two is still a small number, it is two more errors than Tennessee can afford when they are playing the best. Tennessee was caught in a tricky situation a couple of times after Rucker and pitcher Kirby Connell both allowed an error.
Throughout the game as well, there just seemed to be a few moments of confusion between the players, specifically with Connell in the seventh.
Another area where Tennessee struggled throughout the end of the game was exiting the innings. The Hogs’ runs in the eighth and ninth innings both came with two outs and at a time where Tennessee desperately could not afford to give up runs.
Tennessee Controls Their Own Divisional Destiny
Baseball is poetic. And in hindsight, these first two games highlight why it is so important to judge a series and not a single game.
Again, Tennessee’s plate discipline did not help them win on Friday. But baseball is not a one-game sport, and half of the chess match is preparing the teams for an entire weekend of games. Instead, their plate discipline almost directly caused the outcome of Saturday’s game.
Sure, there are a number of things that could have gone different throughout the game. There is no argument for that. But there is also no denying that Kopps was the last person in an Arkansas jersey that Tennessee wanted to see Saturday. After his extending outing the day before, that is exactly what happened.
With the win, Tennessee is still in the driver’s seat when it comes to the SEC East standings. Vanderbilt matched Tennessee’s result for a second night in a row, meaning they are still one game behind the Vols for the top spot in the East after defeating Ole Miss on Saturday.
Now, Tennessee and Arkansas will square off for the series victory Sunday afternoon back inside of Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The crowd was once again a huge factor in the game, as fans continue to show support for the team. Especially now that Tennessee is continuing to allow full capacity at their ballpark.
No. 4 Tennessee will host No. 1 Arkansas in the final game of their series Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET on the SEC Network+ streaming network and the ESPN app.
All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications.