Sunday’s rubber match between Tennessee and Arkansas in Lindsey Nelson Stadium showed exactly how fickle the game of baseball can be. As the Vols faced the same situation they did on Saturday, headed into the bottom of the ninth down by two runs, history wasn’t repeated this time around.
Continuing the trend of one-run ballgames this series, No. 1 Arkansas (39-10, 19-8 SEC) defeated No. 4 Tennessee (39-13, 18-9 SEC) by a score of 3-2. The win on Sunday secured the series victory for the Hogs.
The series as a whole didn’t lack in excitement, or drama, whatsoever. All three games were decided by one run, and each team had multiple “play of the season” types of moments.
On one hand, Tennessee proved once again they can go toe-to-toe with any top team in the nation. But on the other hand, the team already knew that. So the loss felt more like a gut punch and less like a moral victory.
“We don’t do moral victories,” said catcher Connor Pavolony after the loss on Sunday. “We expected to win this series and we’re disappointed we didn’t. We had the No. 1 team in the country on the ropes for three straight days and won only one of them. We’re pretty frustrated. We know we can beat anybody.”
Tennessee Surrendered Lead Late for Second Straight Game
For a second straight game, Tennessee’s starting pitching did not give up a run for the first five innings of each game. In fact, all of Arkansas’ runs in the final two games came in the sixth inning or beyond.
Part of that shows just how much Tennessee is going to need to improve their bullpen pitching for the postseason. But against the top-ranked team in the country, the Vols’ offense has to do a better job at supporting their pitcher with runs when they are dealing that well.
Blade Tidwell was Tennessee’s starting pitcher on the day. The freshman from Texas had by far his best outing of the year, especially when factoring in the competition. Against the No. 1 team in the country, Tidwell pitched seven innings, the first six of which he did not allow a score. Tidwell only gave up two runs on the day and racked up a season-high in strikeouts (8).
The Vols jumped on the scoreboard first for a third straight game this series after second baseman Max Ferguson hit an RBI single back to the pitcher with the bases loaded in the fifth. One run would score on the play and in the inning.
Heflin/Tidwell Combined Stats: 13 IP, 5 hits, 5 runs, 14 K's
All of Arkansas' runs in the final two games of the series came in the 6th inning or later. Arkansas took the lead from the Vols in the 7th and 8th innings in the two games respectively.
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) May 16, 2021
The Hogs finally found their way onto the scoreboard after the sixth, as they added one run in each of the final three innings of the game.
Tennessee found themselves in a familiar situation heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. Down two runs, Luc Lipscius found his way on base and would eventually score after an RBI single from Connor Pavolony.
But that’s all that would come from the inning. Thus closing out the series and giving Arkansas the victory.
Furthermore, the key for Tennessee now is to use the bitter defeats as motivation for their next goal, which should be closing out the regular season with a series victory at South Carolina.
“I’m mad right now,” Tidwell said to the media after the game. “I hope everybody’s mad. This should motivate everybody. We’re right there.”
Emotions Run High During Postgame Confrontation
As the teams were heading off of the field on Sunday, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello and Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn exchanged some words as both teams were headed to regroup in the outfield.
Whatever was said between the two head coaches must have sparked some fire, as both Tennessee and Arkansas’ players slowly started to change the direction towards each other.
The two teams did not actually get close enough to be face-to-face in the outfield. Mainly thanks to both assistant coaching staff’s vehemently tried to calm down each side. With one series remaining in SEC regular-season play, neither team can afford a coach or player suspended.
“There were some off-field things I wanted to say,” Vitello said after the game. “That’s probably more than I should say.”
Vitello later alluded to the timing of his comment being “dumb”, according to Wes Rucker on Twitter.
What’s Next for Tennessee?
After the loss, Tennessee slid back down to No. 2 in the SEC East standings behind Vanderbilt. Although, that could be brief, as Vanderbilt’s final game with Ole Miss began near the end of Tennessee’s game.
If Vanderbilt beats Ole Miss on Sunday, the Commodores will hold the top spot in the East with a 0.692 conference winning percentage. In that case, it would be enough to top Tennessee, which sits at 0.667 in the category after dropping two of three on the weekend.
However, if Vanderbilt loses to Ole Miss, then both the Commodores and Vols will have matched records on the weekend, allowing Tennessee to regain sole possession of the top spot in the East.
The Vols only have one game remaining before their SEC regular-season finale showdown in Colombia with the South Carolina Gamecocks.
The Tennessee baseball team will return to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday, May 18 at 6:30 p.m. ET. They will play host to the Belmont Bruins in a one-game series. SEC Network+ and the Watch ESPN app will have the broadcast.
All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications.