GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- A triple steal and 6.1 strong innings by junior Blake Thomas in his first career start highlighted a 5-4 Tennessee triumph over Virginia Tech in the renewal of the Hokie-Smokey Classic on Tuesday, played in front of a near capacity crowd of 2,518 on a gorgeous evening at Pioneer Park on the campus of Tusculum College.
“First of all, I am really glad that we came here [to Greeneville],” UT head coach Dave Serrano said. “I appreciate all of the people of Tusculum and the people behind the scenes that were able to put this together for us and I hope it becomes a tradition. This is a wonderful atmosphere and a wonderful setting. We had a great crowd that came out to support both teams tonight and it made it even better that we played good baseball tonight and came out on top of a good Virginia Tech team.”
The win is the third straight for Tennessee which improves to 17-18 on the season and takes a 4-2 lead in the Hokie-Smokey Classic as the two teams revived the event after a 11-year absence. Virginia Tech is now 22-16 overall.
In just his fourth career appearance and first start, Thomas gave the Vols a fantastic effort, striking out four and allowing four runs – three earned - on six hits over 6.1 innings of work to improve to 2-0 on the year. After Eric Martin retired the only batter he faced, Andy Cox came on to finish off a perfect effort by the bullpen, fanning three in 2.1 hitless frames to record his first career save.
“[Blake] gave us some good, strong innings,” Serrano said. “He was under control and in character which is always important. He threw strikes. Then we gave the ball to Andy Cox the last three innings and, boy, if he can do what he did tonight continuously, he will be that special pitcher that I’ve believed all along that he can be in this program.”
Continuing his recent tear at the plate, Christin Stewart was 2-for-3 with a walk, an RBI, a stolen base and a run scored. His stolen base come on the back end of a triple steal, headed up by Jeff Moberg who picked up UT’s second straight steal of home this season. Taylor Smart also drove in a pair of runs in the victory.
During his current eight-game hitting streak, Stewart is hitting .440 (11-for-25) with seven runs scored, six RBIs, five walks and two doubles. He is now hitting .311 on the season.
Tennessee took advantage of three free passes – two walks and a hit batter – to jump out to an early lead with all three scoring in the bottom of the first inning. After the Vols loaded the bases without the benefit of a single hit, they pulled a new play out of their bag of tricks, calling for a triple steal with Moberg stealing home on the lead end. A pitch outside the zone allowed him to slide in safely to give the Big Orange a 1-0 lead. Smart followed with a two-run double to the corner in left to make it a quick 3-0 Tennessee advantage.
The Orange and White continued to extend its lead in the next frame as Ethan Bennett stroked a leadoff triple – the first of his career - off the wall in straight-away center before scoring two batters later on an RBI groundout by A.J. Simcox.
The Hokies came roaring back, however, with two Tennessee errors turning into an unearned run before a two-run home run to right by Sean Keselica cut the UT lead to just one at 4-3. Virginia Tech would get another hit two batters later before Thomas was able to escape the frame with a line-drive double play to Simcox at short.
With Thomas continuing to hold the Hokies off the scoreboard, facing just one over the minimum from the fourth through seventh innings, the Big Orange added to its lead with a tally in the bottom of the sixth. After a fielding error allowed Bennett to reach, Simcox was issued a two-out walk and Moberg was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Stewart then punched a 2-0 pitch into right for an RBI single to make it a 5-3 game.
The Hokies got one run back on a run-scoring groundout in the top of the seventh but that was all the Vols would allow the rest of the night as Cox and Martin combined to retire all eight batters that they faced.
Tuesday’s contest ends a five-game road trip in which UT went 4-1. Tennessee will return to Rocky Top this weekend to square off with No. 17 Ole Miss, April 19-21. First pitch for the series opener on Friday is set for 6 p.m. With the Orange & White Spring Football game set for a 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, the Vols and Rebels will play right after at 4 p.m. The series will conclude with a 2 p.m. contest on Sunday which will be televised on ESPNU.