LEXINGTON, Ky. – Tennessee needed an SEC win and it got one in heart-stopping fashion against No. 13 Kentucky on Saturday.
Leading 10-5 going into the bottom of the ninth, three free passes proceeded a grand slam that cut the Volunteer lead to just a single run. The Wildcats would go on to load the bases once again before freshman Jeff Moberg – making his collegiate debut on the mound – got a flyball to center to end the game with UT on top, 10-9.
“We have a way of making things pretty exciting,” Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano said. “It wasn’t easy but we’ll take the win. It is a big Saturday win for us. It was exciting and I was really, really proud of the team and the way we played.
“Early on I thought we did some great things offensively and Nick Williams did a good job of establishing his fastball and throwing a good curveball. We did some really good things as a team and it kind of gets blemished a little bit because of the way it went down in the ninth inning, but a win is a win. It goes in the standings the same if we win 10-5 or 10-9.”
The Orange and White used a 15-hit offensive outburst and seven strong innings from starting pitcher Nick Williams to put itself in position for the victory.
Williams gave the Vols a solid effort on the mound, striking out six and allowing just four hits in 7.0 innings of work. He allowed five runs, just three of which were earned, to improve to 2-2 on the season. Moberg picked up the save in his first collegiate appearance on the mound after recording the game’s final out.
Freshman A.J. Simcox led the offense with his second three-hit game of the weekend, going 3-for-5 with three RBIs. He now leads the Vols with a .400 batting average during SEC play. Over his last 11 games, Simcox is hitting .432 (16-for-37) as he has upped his average for the year to .283.
Pierce Bily also had three hits on the afternoon while Vincent Jackson recorded a pair of doubles and Will Maddox and Parker Wormsley each had two-hit games. Christin Stewart and Taylor Smart each drove in a pair of runs in the contest as well.
The Vols opened the scoring in the top of the third, plating a pair of runs on a single through the right side by Stewart. His blow came with two outs after a single by Wormsley, an HBP to Maddox and base hit by Simcox had loaded the bases.
The Wildcats took advantage of a UT error to score a pair of unearned runs and tie the game in the home half of the inning with an RBI groundout and a sacrifice fly, bringing the score back to even at 2-2.
Tennessee answered right back in the top of the fourth, however, doing so with another two-out rally. After two quick outs to start the stanza, Wormsley got the ball rolling once again with a single to left. Maddox followed with a base hit through the right side and moved up to second as the throw from right went to third with Wormsley hustling around the bases. Simcox then laced his second hit of the day to drive both runners in and put UT up 4-2.
The Vols continued to extend that advantage in the fifth, scoring two runs for the third consecutive inning to go ahead by four, 6-2. Stewart opened the frame with an eight-pitch at-bat that resulted in a leadoff walk and promptly moved to third on a single by Bily. Jackson then roped a double into the gap in right-center to bring one run home and Smart followed with a single right back up the middle to bring in another.
Kentucky got one run back in the bottom of the fifth on an RBI single by Zac Zellers and moved within two when Max Kuhn hit a solo shot to left in the sixth. That would be as close as the Volunteers would let them get though.
Tennessee pushed its lead to five with a three-run eighth as a long drive off the wall in left by David Houser, a double off the wall in right by Maddox and a single up the middle by Simcox all resulted in runners crossing the plate.
The Vols certainly made it interesting in the home half of the eighth as a walk and two hit batters and a sac fly made it a 9-5 game, but Bettencourt was able to induce a pair of groundouts with Simcox and Maddox both making terrific defensive plays to keep the damage to a minimum.
UT got the run back in the top of the ninth as Taylor Smart followed Bily’s third single of the day and Jackson’s second double with a sacrifice fly to left to put the tally on the scoreboard at 10-5. That proved to be a huge run, considering the dramatic bottom of the ninth that would follow.
Tennessee will go for the series win over the 13th-ranked Wildcats at 1 p.m. on Sunday. The Vols will send ace right-hander Zack Godley (2-4, 3.77) to the mound while Kentucky will counter with southpaw Corey Littrell (4-1, 2.72).
“There was some excitement after the game with both teams,” Serrano said. “They were talking a lot in the ninth inning. They knew that we were struggling and tried to take advantage of it and our guys took offense to that after the last out was recorded, but I hope it doesn’t get into the emotional part of it [on Sunday]. We still need to deal with the details.
“It would be really big for us to win this game tomorrow. They have a good pitcher going and we have a really good pitcher, so it is going to be a great matchup. I keep talking about taking that step and this would be a good step for us to take this series tomorrow against Kentucky.”