As pressure mounts, Tennessee baseball continues to deliver in clutch situations
Sean Hunley was just one good pitch away Saturday night.
It wouldn't be easy. LSU's Jordan Thompson battled his way into a 3-2 count, fending off eight of Hunley's best throws. It seemed as if he had an answer for everything in the Tennessee baseball reliever's bag of tricks.
A solid hit from Thompson could have brought LSU's runners on second and third home with two outs, erasing the Vols' two-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. Tennessee called a quick timeout and Hunley took a moment to collect himself.
A deep breath, then the wind up. The ball was placed just below Thompson's elbows outside the strike zone. He reached, desperate to give his team new life.
Thompson missed, Hunley got his fourth strikeout in three innings and Tennessee's dugout stormed Lindsey Nelson Stadium, celebrating a 4-2 victory and the program's first NCAA super regional win since 2005.
"If you're going to summarize our win, it's not like LSU didn't have the same thing, but it was kind of our brand of baseball," UT coach Tony Vitello said. "We were able to overcome a little bit of adversity and fortunately win the game tonight."
The No. 3 overall-seeded Vols (49-16) are one win away from their first College World Series appearance in 16 years. They'll play LSU (38-24) in Game 2 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
To get to this point, they've had to face mounting pressure as games start to matter more and an abrupt end to the season looms large. Tennessee almost slipped in its first NCAA Tournament game, falling behind 8-5 to Wright State entering the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Vols weren't facing elimination, but a loss would have left them dangling off the edge. They answered by loading the bases and walking it off with a grand slam from sophomore outfielder Drew Gilbert.
Responding positively in adverse situations has become an intrinsic part of UT's identity.
So has a blatant disregard for its coach's health.
"Zero regard for their coaching staff's heart or arteries or however that stuff works scientifically," Vitello said. "You get to this time of year, it's not going to be easy. You play in our league, it's not going to be easy."
Gilbert's home run was his team's seventh walk off win of the season. The Vols were 5-0 in games that went to extra innings during the regular season, a streak that wasn't broken until an 11-inning loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament.
Tennessee is in the driver's seat — for now — but that doesn't mean the pressure is off.
"It's never going to be easy along the way," Vitello said. "Somehow or somewhere in the whole mix of this, the kids have kind of embraced that and almost kind of welcomed that."