Inside Drew Gilbert's walk-off grand slam to power Tennessee baseball over Wright State
Drew Gilbert strutted down the right-field line with his hands pointed skyward Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Tennessee baseball public address announcer issued a second plea for fans to head for the exits. It didn’t work. There was no way anyone was leaving while Gilbert was still on the field.
The Vols outfielder wrote the latest chapter of a season filled with late-game heroics in big moments in the largest one yet. Gilbert smashed a walk-off grand slam to power Tennessee to a 9-8 win against Wright State in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
“These guys, if the going gets tough, they get tougher,” Vols coach Tony Vitello said. “If they get punched in the mouth while it is tough, they get even a little bit tougher.”
Gilbert’s homer was his first since March 28 against LSU — also a walk-off homer as part of UT’s second sweep against the Tigers in program history. This edition kept Tennessee (46-16) on the winner’s side of the Knoxville Regional and set up a matchup against Liberty (40-14) on Saturday (6 p.m. ET).
Gilbert celebrated accordingly with a lengthy pause in the batter’s box, a massive bat flip and a 35-second trot around the bases.
“Obviously, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a good feeling,” Gilbert said. “All that stems from having our teammates all year trying to have each other’s back.”
Tennessee trailed 8-5 entering the ninth inning and faced a potential elimination game Saturday.
Instead, the Vols did what they have done often on their way to the program's best regular season since 1995.
Connor Pavolony led off the ninth with a hard-hit single to third. Max Ferguson smacked a one-out single to left-center, putting runners on the corners for Jake Rucker.
“The inning was basically kind of what you would like your guys to do every inning and have that sense of urgency and that ‘We’re not going to go away’ or ‘We’re not going to die’ type deal,” Vitello said.
Wright State made a pitching change, but Austin Cline walked Rucker on five pitches to bring up Gilbert.
The lefty took a big swing and missed the first pitch. He got all of the second one — a hanging breaking ball at the top of the strike zone.
“In a big situation like that, you can let your mind race too much different places,” Gilbert said. “I just let my mind shut off and just react. I know my teammates have my back and I just tried to have theirs there.”
Gilbert stood in the batter’s box and admired the ball soaring high into the Knoxville night sky above right field.
Evan Russell put his hands on his head and crouched in the on-deck circle. Ferguson threw his hands in the air at second base. Luc Lipcius started jumping up down in the dugout, which rapidly emptied.
Vitello was one of the first to bolt from the dugout, taking off in a sprint down the first-base line.
“I am bleeding somehow,” Vitello said. “Probably my own doing.”
Gilbert stared at the Wright State dugout before starting to run. He hurled the bat into the air, turned and began a slow home run trot to soak in the moment.
He spun and chucked his helmet toward the outfield as he approached home plate, where his teammates waited for him.
“I think that’s the mantra of this team: You can’t just beat one of us. You have to beat all nine of us,” Pavolony said.
Tennessee has hit four walk-off homers this season after not hitting one since 2010. The Vols have seven walk-off wins among their 46 victories, the latest of which kept their College World Series dreams alive.
“I think that something that’s special about this team, is that if we get punched in the mouth, we always find a way to punch back — no matter the situation,” Gilbert said. “In the game of baseball, things aren’t always going to go your way, but it’s all about how you respond.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.