Knack for clutch hits has Tennessee Vols 2 wins from CWS

The Tennessee Volunteers have had quite a knack for coming through in the clutch, and because of those timely hits they are two wins away from the program’s first College World Series berth in 16 years.

The Volunteers (48-16) have won seven games in walk-off fashion, the latest coming on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to open regional play. Now the No. 3 overall national seed is in its first super regional since 2005 by coming through when it matters most.

Not bad for a program that hadn’t had a walk-off home run since 2010.

“I wish I could coach it or go give a speech on it, probably make some money off that deal,” coach Tony Vitello said Wednesday. “But it’s kind of been their little deal that they’ve created.”

The Vols showed off that ability for the big hit in the third game of this season. Shortstop Liam Spence hit a grand slam in the 12th inning to help Tennessee cap a sweep on the road at Georgia Southern.

“That was the first moment where I was like, ‘Let’s not be good, let’s be great because if you can do this, you can be great,’” Vitello said. “And then it’s kind of spiraled into a deal where the whole group thinks they can get it done and a lot of different situations.”

Centerfielder Drew Gilbert has two of Tennessee’s walk-off home runs, the last with the Vols trailing Wright State by three runs in the bottom of the ninth last week to prompt a big celebration at home plate. He said that first walk-off helped the Vols realize they’re never out of a game.

“The game’s not over until the third out in the ninth inning,” Gilbert said. “We just tried to get the next guy up to the plate. We don’t quit playing until the game’s over. I think that’s kind of where it stems from.”

With the Vols down 7-5 to top-ranked Arkansas in the bottom of the ninth, Max Ferguson hit a three-run homer to right field for the 8-7 win. Jordan Beck had a three-run home run against ETSU in the bottom of the 10th on March 16.

Tennessee is hosting LSU (38-23) in the Super Regional starting Saturday night in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Vols already have a pair of walk-off victories from the teams’ series in March.

The second game in that series was suspended in the eighth by weather and completed Sunday. Gilbert tied it up with an RBI double with two outs in the ninth, then hit a solo home run in the 10th. Luc Lipscius drove in the winning run with an RBI single in the eighth inning of a seven-inning game in the series finale.

“We got walked-off twice in one day, which that sucked,” LSU junior Drew Bianco said.

Vitello said every player believes he can deliver when a key hit is needed.

“Sometimes it’s not very pretty. Sometimes it is,” Vitello said. “Sometimes they they get overly excited when they do it, which I think they deserve the right to act that way if something goes well. But however it happens, you know, it’s kind of been a find a way group.”

That clutch hitting has helped the Vols go 48-16 this season. Leftfielder Evan Russell beat Vanderbilt on April 17 with a grand slam in the eighth inning, and the senior helped beat Texas A&M a week later with two three-run home runs.

Russell wasn’t as sure as some of his teammates in the ninth inning against Wright State about another comeback win. The senior remembered too well losing the 2019 regional after falling into the loser’s bracket.

“It’s pretty remarkable to see the bats that we put in in such a high pressure situation,” Russell said.

Russell ticked off what went into the Vols’ latest walk-off win. Connor Pavolony started off the ninth with a single. After a flyout by Spence, Ferguson singled to center before Jake Rucker walked to load the bases before Gilbert drove the ball over the right field fence.

“We have a lot of guys that go in there and in big moments we can relax,” Russell said. “And I think that’s why we find a lot of success and those big moments.”

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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