Vols show national championship traits, earned over time, in overcoming pesky Purple Aces

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When this thing ends in Omaha, as it is destined to do, either with Tennessee hoisting a trophy because it had too much hitting or watching someone else hoist it because the Vols didn’t have quite enough pitching, remember the trouble Evansville caused.

One, because Evansville appears to be done causing trouble. Two, because it matters. It means something. And yes, No. 1 overall seed Tennessee’s 11-6 victory Friday over the Purple Aces to open the Knoxville Super Regional did in fact produce tenuous moments for the home team at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. They were fleeting moments. But in this sport and tournament, those things can feed on themselves and multiply.

That’s part of why Evansville is just the ninth regional No. 4 seed to reach a super regional since this format debuted in 1999. And it helps explain the Knoxville Super Regional of 2022. Sorry to bring it up. But what we’re watching unfold for Tony Vitello’s program has sequel vibes.

That No. 1 overall seed, the overwhelming tournament favorite with no discernible holes other than its own wild-eyed ferocity, did not handle the pressure and lost to Notre Dame in three games. This one — also ubertalented but not as balanced, featuring just one true starter — is not the clear favorite. It comes off clear-eyed, though.

Take senior catcher Cal Stark, for example. It was 2-1 Evansville in the top of the third, the Purple Aces having chased starter Chris Stamos from the game and now getting to AJ Causey. Causey is really the starter in this pairing, with the Vols hoping Stamos can deliver two or three innings of left-handed quality to set up Causey’s submarining, soft-tossing right arm.

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But Evansville prompted Vitello to switch early with a two-run Cal McGinnis homer off Stamos. A slick 5-4-3 double play to end the bottom of the second further emboldened the purple-clad cheering section along the third-base line.

It was early. But pressure can spike early. It was climbing as Causey walked the leadoff hitter in the third, No. 9 hitter Ty Rumsey.

Rumsey got a great jump toward second on a 2-1 pitch and Stark hopped up to make a throw that was not going to get him. Evansville’s Simon Scherry didn’t do a good enough job of getting out of Stark’s way. Rather than throw, Stark pumped, held up and looked at home plate umpire Greg Charles, noting Scherry’s obstruction. Charles called batter interference.

And, of course, there was a long review and conversations between pretty much every coach and every umpire involved in the game. The call was ultimately upheld. I think it was the right call. I also think, had Stark thrown to second, Scherry likely wouldn’t have obstructed the throw and it simply would have been a stolen base.

Vitello said Tennessee was a “benefactor” in that situation, and that’s true — the benefactor of a savvy catcher finding an edge. Stark followed that up, after Causey hit Mark Shallenberger with a pitch, by picking Shallenberger off first after a swinging strike three on Kip Fougerousse. The inning-ending double play jolted the orange-dominated crowd of 6,195 and seemed to settle the Vols.

They eventually overwhelmed with the usual formula. Christian Moore, Blake Burke, Hunter Ensley and Billy Amick hit bombs. Moore’s was his 30th, advancing his Tennessee record. Amick’s might have plunked an unsuspecting commuter on Neyland Drive if it didn’t dent a light post instead. Evansville used its best two pitchers and still succumbed to what coach Wes Carroll called “the most dangerous lineup I’ve seen in my 16 years as a head coach.”

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Christian Moore pumps his fist as he rounds the bases after hitting his 30th home run of the season Friday. (Brianna Paciorka / Knoxville News Sentinel)

The most impressive part? That after the Purple Aces fought back to tie it 5-5 in the top of the fifth — an error by Moore leading to three unearned runs off Causey — no Tennessee puckering ensued. Moore walked in the bottom of the fifth, Burke crushed a pitch that was nearly his second homer and nearly caught after a dazzling effort by Rumsey at the wall, settling for a go-ahead double.

The Vols (54-11) added from there. Causey got the win. Kirby Connell chipped in two innings of relief. Aaron Combs wrapped it up by striking out the side with the bases loaded against an Evansville team (38-25) with the bats to keep fighting this weekend, if not the arms.

There was some debate in the press box about whether Evansville winning this super regional would be the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Let there be no debate now that the Purple Aces winning the next two games, considering the state of their pitching staff, would be some combination of the Miracle on Ice, Leicester winning the Premier League and Saint Peter’s reaching the Elite Eight.

It’s not happening. Vitello would not indulge that, saying he knew this series would be “hell” and even mentioning the possibility of a deciding game Sunday. He would, however, acknowledge his team’s poise, saying of the response to the 5-5 tie: “It’s a difference. It’s a difference between this team and other ones I’ve been able to be a part of.”

“It’s a difference-maker how they remain calm,” Vitello said of his players, “or try and punch back in a situation when the other team does the damage on us.”

That, he said, even helps keep the coaches calm. And as anyone who watches a Tennessee baseball game can detect quickly, Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson are not wallflowers in the dugout. Burke, Ensley, Moore, Connell, Zander Sechrist and Drew Beam — who will pitch Saturday for UT’s third College World Series trip in four years — all experienced the unthinkable together in 2022.

They were bigger factors on the 2023 team that looked like it might not make the tournament, turned everything around, won weekends at Clemson and Southern Miss to reach Omaha and then got a win there.

“This is a different script that’s being written,” Vitello said. “But the fact that we experienced (those things), whether we won or lost, gives us a bit of an edge.”

The talent, experience and demeanor of this team makes the ending of this sequel easy to predict. So does the absence of a bogeyman in the field who can’t be overcome in Omaha. Paul Skenes is in the majors now. The only thing in the way of Tennessee glory is that the sport of baseball often writes its own bizarre endings.

(Top photo of Hunter Ensley sliding around Evansville catcher Brendan Hord to score: Bryan Lynn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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