KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee scored three runs on safety squeezes to take a 5-4 lead over No. 4 Florida through five innings and held on for the win, getting a game-ending 5-3 double play on a diving play by Zach Luther with the bases loaded in the ninth to even the weekend series against the Gators in front of 2,838 on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“It’s baseball and like I continue to say, I learn,” UT head coach Dave Serrano said. “I have been around this game a long time and I continue to learn you can never figure this game out. We go out there and I have to make a decision because of a disciplinary action to start Robbie Kidd, a true freshman. We pitched (Dalton) Saberhagen earlier than he’s ever pitched in a game. You would say the Vols’ chances to win this game were not very good and we came out on top.
“You can never figure this game out. You think the pitching is set and the lineup is set, but I keep preaching to the team that it’s the team that plays the best that day.”
With the win, the Volunteers improve to 21-14 overall and 7-7 in Southeastern Conference play, matching their league win total for all of last season. Florida drops to 27-8 on the year and 8-6 in conference action.
“I don’t look back at last year, I only look forward,” Serrano said. “I’m proud of these guys and what we have overcome but we’re not trying to match anything from last year. We are just trying to do what we can do this year with this team.”
UT freshman Richard Carter, who entered the game with just three hits and two RBIs for his career, was 2-for-3 and drove in three runs in Saturday's contest alone. Chris Fritts and Davis Morgan each had a pair of hits for the Orange and White as well.
On the mound, sophomore Dalton Saberhagen improved to 4-0 on the season with 1.2 innings of scoreless work out of the bullpen. He came on in relief of freshman Robbie Kidd who allowed just two earned runs and struck out three in four innings, despite starting the contest on short notice.
Drew Steckenrider added 2.1 shutout frames before Nick Blount came on to finish off the contest with the exciting, but successful, ninth inning, earning his ninth save in nine opportunities this season.
The Vols got to Florida starter Karsten Whitson quickly, hitting him up for four runs, three earned, on six hits, in just three innings. Johnny Magliozzi (4-1) suffered his first loss of the season despite allowing just one run on two hits over the final five frames.
With Tennessee clinging to a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth, Blount found himself in trouble in a hurry after hitting UF All-American Mike Zunino and yielding a single to Brian Johnson with Nolan Fontana, who had reached base in 12 consecutive plate appearances, coming up to bat.
Blount buckled down and fought off two bunt attempts from Fontana before inducing a groundout to first. The Vols then elected to walk Daniel Pigott to load the bases and the strategy worked out perfectly as Vickash Ramjit hit a sharp groundball down the third-base line that Luther made a diving grab on before stepping on third and firing to first for the game-ending double play.
Florida actually got on the scoreboard first in the contest with a solo home run by Johnson in the second, but the Big Orange answered right back, using RBI doubles from Carter and Ethan Bennett, after Fritts opened the home half of the frame with a hit by pitch, to grab an early lead.
It wouldn't last long though as the Gators took advantage of a two-out error by the Vols to plate two runs in the top of the third and snatch the advantage back, 3-2.
The back-and-forth action continued in the bottom of the third, as the Vols turned to some small ball to bring in two more runs.
UT put runners on the corners with one out thanks to a hit batter and a single to right by Morgan.After leaving 10 runners stranded in scoring position on Friday night they weren't going to take any chances, calling for a safety squeeze which Fritts executed perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that he hustled out an infield single.
A throwing error on the play allowed Morgan to reach third, setting up another safety squeeze which Carter laid down beautifully as well, earning an RBI infield single of his own to put the Big Orange ahead, 4-3.
The scoring continued in the top of the fourth as Florida tied the game at 4-4 on an RBI double by Preston Tucker. The Vols were held in check in their next at-bat before Fritts saved at least two runs in the top of the fifth, making a spectacular diving catch in left-center for the third out with two runners in scoring position.
“That was the play of the day,” Serrano said. “We’ll remember Luther’s play, and it was spectacular, but they had some momentum going and the catch by Fritts in centerfield was spectacular. When we had to make the move to put him in centerfield, I kept saying he is not your prototypical centerfielder. But defensively he hasn’t done anything to disappoint us out there at all and he’s continued to make spectacular plays and anchor the outfield for us.”
The Orange and White parlayed that momentum into another tally in its turn at the plate. Following a one-out double by Morgan and a single by Fritts, Tennessee turned to an old trick for a third time on the day, with Carter driving in his third run of the game, and the eventual game-winnner, with another UT safety squeeze.
The UT bullpen held off the potent Florida offense for the next four frames to finish off the squad's fifth win over a ranked team this season.
The rubber match between the Vols and Gators is set for 2 p.m. on Sunday. Sophomore right-hander Nick Williams (2-3, 2.02) will toe the rubber for Tennessee, while Florida will counter with Brian Johnson (4-1, 4.43).
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