Evan Russell Talks Starkville Vols #1 MissState Sweep
Saturday was a good day for Tennessee’s top-ranked baseball team and the Vols’ senior catcher. Evan Russell had a lot to say about it.
Visiting Tennessee on Saturday completed its first Starkville sweep in program history, beating Mississippi State 10-5 at Dudy Noble Field.
Tennessee (49-7, 25-5 SEC) had already prevented Mississippi State (26-30, 9-21) from earning a spot in next week’s annual SEC tournament, but the Vols added another victory that ruined the Bulldogs’ senior day at arguably the best college baseball field.
Mississippi State took a 1-0 lead late in the first on a first homer from second baseman RJ Yeagerbut senior third baseman Trey Lip Comb hit a two-run homer in the top of the second to give Tennessee a lead it never relinquished.
Junior right-handed hard thrower Ben Joyce worked 1.1 scoreless innings out of the bullpen to earn the win, moving to 3-1 on the year. State sophomore right-handed starter Cade Smith was marred by loss despite injury before registering a second set out, falling to 4-4 on the year.
Tennessee needed a big day from their bullpen after a right-handed starter Drew Beam lasted just two innings, allowing two earned runs on three hits, with zero strikeouts and one walk. Beam, one of the SEC’s top pitchers for most of the season, has struggled in his final outings, and the Vols have seen enough to give Joyce the ball to open the bottom of the third.
Joyce was dominant initially. Tennessee extended their lead to 5-2 on a two-run homer from second baseman Jorel Ortega in the top of the third, and Joyce hit 105 mph again before running into trouble late in the fourth, after the Vols capitalized on an error to increase their lead to 6-2 in the top of the frame. A walk, a single down the right and a hit-and-run charged the bases with one out, and the Vols turned to the junior southpaw Kirby Connell to break the deadlock. Connell did just that, securing a pair of defending picks to keep the score at 6-2 before the start of the fifth.
The score did not stay there for long, however. Russell hit a solo home run – the 38th of his career, tying Todd Helton for the program’s career record — to extend the lead to 7-2 in the top of the fifth.
Connell retired the team in order in the bottom of the fifth and bottom of the sixth, ending his day with eight batters faced and eight outs. Tennessee also extended its lead in the top of the sixth, courtesy of a two-run brace from the junior center fielder. Drew Gilbert which made it 9-2, and an RBI groundout from Ortega which made it 10-2.
Reliable senior right-handed flights Camden Sewell had horrible luck in the bottom of the seventh, allowing four consecutive singles on balls that weren’t hit well but had eyes on them. The fourth hit – an RBI single from the shortstop Tanner Leggett – cut the score to 10-3, then Yeager opted to charge the no-out bases, prompting another move to the bullpen.
Tennessee brought in a junior southpaw Will Mabrey to put out the fire, and that’s exactly what he did. A rare mistake by the senior first baseman Luc Lipcius – although Mabrey’s late break in the sack didn’t help – made it 10-4, but Mabrey bounced off catcher at bat Logan Tanner and got a double play off the bat from the dangerous designated hitter Hunter Hines to keep the score at 10-4 going into the eighth.
Gilbert was cut at home plate to complete the top of the eighth, keeping the score at 10-4, and right fielder Kellum Clark cut the deficit to 10-5 with a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth. It would have been 10-6 had it not been for left fielder Jess Davis’ bizarre attempt to stretch an opening single into a double.
Tennessee went down the order in the top of the ninth, but the Vols called in a closer senior southpaw Redmond Walsh in the depths of the night, and he sat down State in order to end the game.
Gilbert finished his big weekend with a 3-for-4 day at the plate, increasing his batting average to .385 and on-base percentage north of .500. Ortega also capped off his big weekend in style, providing three more RBIs and his 15th homer of the year for a team that has already set a new NCAA record in the BBCOR bat era with 137 homers. this season – and post-season stats will give the Vols a chance to flesh out that record.
Tennessee, who can obviously read a map, won’t return to Knoxville until they turn around and head straight back to Hoover for the SEC Tournament. The Vols will take the short bus ride east to Birmingham and begin preparing for the league’s annual event at the Hoover Met. The Vols will open play Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. EST in a game that will be broadcast by SEC Network.
A full transcript of the Vols coach’s post-match pressers Tony VitelloRussell and Connell can be seen HERE.