By Mark Nagi
By the time you are reading this, Tennessee’s baseball team will have won their Super Regional and advanced to their first College World Series since 2005. Or they will have been knocked out of the postseason, ending a terrific campaign a step shy of Omaha. Or maybe Tennessee is still playing in the Super Regional.
It’s tough to say. I don’t know your reading schedule. But that shouldn’t take away from your enjoyment of this article.
Forget about the football team or either of the basketball teams. The Vols baseball team has become the most exciting and popular team on the UT campus.
On Friday, June 4, the Vols opened the NCAA Regionals at home against Wright State, the top offensive team in the country with a .339 average. Even though Tennessee was the third overall national seed, they hosted a region that also featured a red-hot Duke team, and a Liberty group that won 39 games in 2021.
To take a line from the World Cup, this was the Group of Death.
A little over an hour before first pitch I got text from my friend Ben, asking if I wanted to go to the Wright State game. I originally said no because I had tickets to see the 6th Fast and Furious movie. After a few minutes, I came to my senses because I’ve seen that movie approximately 700 times. Ben texted me the ticket and I arrived at Lindsey Nelson Stadium a few minutes after first pitch.
This was my first time at that stadium in years, and I appreciated the beer sales (why did it ever take that long?), but otherwise the age of the place was showing. The SEC is an arms race, and right now when it comes to baseball, Tennessee doesn’t have the proper artillery.
But that hasn’t mattered because head coach Tony Vitello has built a winner at Tennessee. Now in his fourth season, Vitello won the Eastern Division and advanced to the title game of the SEC Tournament. And he’s doing it without a roster filled with future major leaguers.
The Tennessee powers that be realize that to keep Vitello, and keep the momentum going, they’ll have to make major improvements to Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Expect that to be a major talking point in the off season.
But back to the game.
Tennessee was ahead 5-2 after three innings and had multiple chances to blow the game wide open. But three flyballs died at the wall, and a base running error cost them a run. The visitors chipped away throughout the night, and eventually took an 8-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
This was the type of game that Tennessee teams have lost so many times over the past 13 years, especially in the sports that people care the most about.
But something felt different this time. The crowd, which had been fairly quiet through the last five innings, was ready to yell. They just needed a reason.
They got it when the leadoff man reached base with a hot shot to third. The next batter was robbed of a hit but then there was a base hit to the opposite field, followed by a pitching change and a walk.
Somehow, the bases were loaded with the winning run coming to the plate in the person of cleanup hitter Drew Gilbert.
It’s difficult to properly describe what happened next.
After swinging from the heels on the first pitch, Gilbert was waiting for a fastball. He got a hanger, adjusted, and blasted it into the Knoxville night.
The noise from the crowd was a guttural, primal scream from 4000 fans totally bought in. A walk off, grand slam, giving Tennessee an improbable 9-8 victory.
To take a line from the late, great John Ward, “Pandemonium Reigns.”
It was the rarest of moments in Tennessee athletics. Pure joy for a fanbase that needed something to cheer about and got it on a huge stage.
I’ve watched the replay at least a hundred times and listened to the wonderful call by my old friend John Wilkerson on The Sports Animal, and I still get goosebumps, and imagine that I always will. Throw that Gilbert home run along the Jauan Jennings Hail Mary against Georgia in 2016 as one of the great moments in recent Tennessee history.
Vitello celebrated with Vols fans, who jumped on the home dugout and leaned against the protective netting. This nearly caused Tennessee officials to have a collective coronary with the fear of those fans tumbling onto the ground.
The Vols went on to beat Liberty on Saturday and on Sunday and punched their ticket to the Super Regionals.
All I can say… is thanks for the ticket, Ben.
What an experience.
By Mark Nagi