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No. 4 Tennessee Falls to No. 1 Arkansas in SEC Heavyweight Opener

Like you would expect in any heavyweight bout, two behemoths of the college baseball world met in Knoxville on Friday night and delivered a slugfest. But after trading shots back and forth all night, it was No. 1 Arkansas who came out on top over No. 4 Tennessee in the first of their three-game series.

The Razorbacks (38-9, 18-7 SEC) defeated the Vols (38-12, 17-8 SEC) in Lindsey Nelson Stadium by a score of 6-5.

Honestly, taking shots back and forth may have been a stretch. It was more like a chess match between two smart opponents. The story of the game was simply that Tennessee could not fend off Arkansas for eight innings after jumping out to an early lead in the bottom of the first inning.

The Vols came to the field ready to play, and so did the fans. As 3,476 people roared from the grandstands from the opening pitch, the Vols jumped out to an early lead as they put a five-spot on the Hogs in the bottom of the first frame. Unfortunately for Tennessee though, that’s where the runs would end on the day.

Arkansas would continue to climb back though, inch by inch, throughout the game. The Hogs put up two runs in the second and third innings, followed by an additional run in the fifth. But it would be the eighth inning of the game in which they put the final nail in the coffin, sending the go-ahead run across the plate.

Chad Dallas was the Vols Friday starter once again. The junior from Orange, Texas gave up five earned runs in his five innings pitched. Dallas did strike out four batters during his outing, but also gave up seven hits.

The Bats Were Alive Until Arkansas Rebounded Quickly

It may be easy to look at the box score and think to yourself that after the first inning Tennessee had a terrible, awful game.

That just isn’t true for the most part.

In reality, Tennessee was able to feed off of a ruckus atmosphere and catch Arkansas off guard in the first inning. After that, the Vols still put the bat on the ball, but Arkansas continued to make Top 10 play after Top 10 play.

“I don’t think our offense tailed off after the first inning,” said right fielder Jordan Beck after the game. “I just think Arkansas made a lot of great plays defensively. Give those guys credit. Those were some great plays.”

Once the Hogs were able to settle into a groove, they started to look like the top-ranked team in the nation once again.

As for that first inning though, it was an absolute explosion of pent-up energy from everyone inside of the stadium and from the team.

Jake Rucker started the party off with a double down the right-field line to send home Max Ferguson and Liam Spence for the first two runs of the game. Then, after Evan Russell joined Rucker on the bases, Beck delivered a shot to right field for the three-run home run.

At the start of the seventh inning, Arkansas brought in their ace to close the game, Kevin Kopps. But even with arguably the best closing pitcher in the nation on the mound, Tennessee still gave themselves a fighter’s chance. 

The Vols knocked four long shots to the warning track or just below in the final three frames. Plus, Luc Lipcious gave Kopps everything he could handle with an at-bat in the eighth that seemingly took forever with so many foul tips.

While the Vols couldn’t manufacture any runs off of Kopps, there’s still one huge takeaway. Tennessee forced Arkansas’ best pitcher, and most reliable closer, to throw 67 pitches in the first game of the series. That could absolutely be a factor in the remaining games this weekend.

Hunley Near Perfect in Relief

Chad Dallas started the game for the Vols, but it was relief pitcher Sean Hunley who made the biggest headlines in the game.

The right-handed pitcher came in to relieve Dallas in the fifth inning and would wind up closing out the rest of the game. 

Hunley was masterful in his 4.2 innings pitched, only giving up one run on one hit. He also struck out three and did not walk a batter. That is extra impressive considering how statistically disciplined the Hogs can be at the plate.

But unfortunately for Hunley, one hit is all that it took to give Arkansas the lead. The Hogs loaded a runner onto the bases at the start of the eighth inning, and just two batters later would send that runner home with a sacrifice fly to the outfield.

Similar to how the Tennessee coaching staff is likely breathing a sigh of relief that Kopps had such a high pitch count, the Arkansas staff has to be pleased with the amount of time Hunley spent on the field tonight. The senior pitcher racked up 53 pitches on the day.

That leaves his status for the rest of the series up in the air.

“Honestly I won’t have any idea until tomorrow,” Hunley said about his status for the series after Game 1. “I’ll see how I feel. I hope I’ll feel good enough to be there for my team on Sunday.”

One Down, Two To Go

Just because Tennessee lost the first game of the series does not mean all hope is lost. Or that folks should start to find the nearest panic button leftover from basketball season.

In fact, Tennessee has been in this position before… a heartbreaking Friday night loss in a Top-5 matchup in Knoxville. And against Vanderbilt, Tennessee was able to come out and regroup in game two.

If there’s one big takeaway from this initial game, it’s that Tennessee absolutely has the firepower to go toe-to-toe with Arkansas. The key to the final two games though will be replicating the success at the beginning of the game. But they still need to add more throughout.

Tennessee can absolutely continue to take advantage of the hog’s starting pitchers, because the relievers are going to be much tougher to handle. Even with Kopps’ availability potentially being limited, they are still more dangerous than anyone from the pen. 

The other bit of good news, if you were scoreboard watching, was that Vanderbilt also lost to Ole Miss on Friday night. That means that Tennessee is still in the driver’s seat to control their own destiny in the SEC East.

The Vols return to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Saturday at noon ET for game two of the series with the Razorbacks. The game will be broadcasted on the SEC Network.

In Game 2, lefty Will Heflin (2-2) will be on the mound for the Vols as right-hander Peyton Pallette (1-2) will start the game for Arkansas.

Stay tuned to Fox Sports Knoxville for more continued coverage of the Tennessee baseball season.

All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications. 

 

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