KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (utsports.com/WVLT) -- Tennessee freshman Andrew Toles delivered a walk-off single to cap a two-run ninth inning that gave the Volunteers a 4-3 victory over Auburn to close out the 2011 campaign on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The contest marked the end of the collegiate careers of five UT seniors – Rob Catapano, Matt Duffy, Tyler Horne, Josh Liles and Khayyan Norfork.
We'll soon learn if head coach Todd Raleigh will be back for a fifth season. In his four previous years at Tennessee, Raleigh has not been able to get the Volunteers into the SEC tournament--which takes the top 8 teams from the league.
After the game against Auburn, Raleigh said he will sit down with UT athletic director Mike Hamilton in the next few days to discuss the direction of the baseball program. Raleigh also said that he hasn't had a face-to-face conversation with Hamilton since before the season started.
In the last four years, Tennessee is the only school not to qualify for the SEC baseball tournament.
Prior to Saturday’s ninth-inning comeback, the Big Orange had been 0-28 when trailing after seven innings this season. Tennessee finishes the year with a 25-29 overall record and 7-23 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
“All those things you need to do to win a game, we did today,” UT Head Coach Todd Raleigh said. “We really squelched a lot of (Auburn) rallies. We were down a bunch today, but Josh (Liles) got the huge, huge home run. Rob (Catapano) pitched great to start the day, (Drew Steckenrider) pitched great, Nick Williams was great, T.J. Thornton was great getting that one punch-out. Everything we did, every little move we made, seemed to go our way.
“It’s been a tough season. We’ve been hurt beyond recognition, but the kids never gave up. We got in a couple of bad spells, but our league isn’t that separated. Auburn only has (four) more wins than us overall. We just couldn’t get over the hump in conference play down a couple of players, but the kids battled hard. They had every reason this weekend to not show up, but they played hard.”
Liles, who hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning in his final collegiate at-bat, finishes his career with 199 total hits and in ninth place in the Tennessee record book with 188 games played. Duffy added a walk and his team-leading 15th double in the contest as well, while Norfork finished the year as UT’s leading hitter with a .332 batting average. Catapano started the game for the Big Orange, allowing two runs in 4.2 innings.
Toles finished 2-for-4 at the plate on Saturday and saved a run in the second inning when he gunned down a runner at the plate for his fourth outfield assist of the year. It was another freshman that picked up the win for the Vols, as Nick Williams yielded just one unearned run and one hit over the game’s final two innings.
Trailing by one entering the final frame, Tennessee wasted little time getting runners on base as junior Davis Morgan was hit by a 2-2 curveball to start the inning. He quickly moved up to third when junior Zach Osborne laid down the 21st sac bunt of his career, tying him for the school record. The pitcher tried to get the force out on second on the play though and his throw sailed into center for an error to put runners on the corners with nobody out.
Steckenrider followed just three pitches later with a high chopper over the mound to bring Morgan in from third and tie the game. Toles then gave the Big Orange a walk-off win when he ripped a 1-2 pitch right back up the middle for an RBI single. Osborne came around from second to score just ahead of the throw to the plate to end the game.
Auburn actually struck the first blow of the contest, using back-to-back, two-out RBI singles by Cullen Wacker and Tony Caldwell to jump out to a 2-0 lead. The Tigers looked like they would add to their advantage in the top of the sixth when they got a runner to third with just one out, but the Tennessee bullpen was able to get out of the jam as junior southpaw T.J. Thornton recorded a huge strikeout on Kevin Patterson and sophomore Drew Steckenrider got Creede Simpson to pop out to second.
The Vols then used that momentum to their advantage in the home half of the sixth to cut their deficit in half. With one out on the scoreboard, Duffy launched a first-pitch fastball deep to right-center high off the wall for a double. Following a productive groundout that moved him to third, junior Morgan came through with a clutch two-out single to left to bring him home. Morgan recorded at least one RBI in each of the final four games of the season.
Auburn tried to grab the momentum back in the top of the seventh, but once again, the Orange and White was able to escape a major jam unscathed. With Steckenrider on the mound, the Tigers managed to load the bases with just one out. UT’s hard-throwing righty buckled down, however, and got Caldwell swinging and Wes Gilmer to fly out to center to keep the tally on the scoreboard at 2-1 Auburn.
After a scoreless seventh inning, Liles took it upon himself to tie the game, crushing the first pitch he saw in the eighth well over “The Porch” in left to put the two teams in a 2-2 deadlock. The longball was his first of the year and 19th of his career.
The Tigers weren’t going to go away that easily though, and answered with an unearned run in the top of the ninth to set up the Volunteer heroics in the final frame.