Cold, swirling winds and erratic pitching combined to make Tennessee’s first midweek game of the season an interesting, high-scoring affair, but the Vols survived.
Freshman DH Vincent Jackson rounds first base during UT's 9-7 win over ETSU on Tuesday. (UT photo)
UT nearly lost two big leads but never trailed, outlasting East Tennessee State, 9-7, in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“We’ll take the ugly ones, too,” second-year Vols coach Dave Serrano said with a smile. “Over the course of a 56-game schedule, not all of ‘em are gonna be pretty. I’d feel a lot worse if it was an ugly game and we came out on the short end.
“It’s hard to be successful when you walk eight guys and you hit two. To come out on the top end tonight is very fortunate. We overcame ourselves.”
Freshman right-hander Matt Esparza (1-1) started and got the win despite throwing just 3 1/3 innings — he was put on a 50-pitch count going into the game — and Josh Jacques (0-1) got the loss for ETSU. Freshman right-hander Trevor Bettencourt scrambled his way to a scoreless ninth to record the first save of his career.
Bettencourt, who had really solid in his first few appearances out of the bullpen this season, didn’t get off to the best start in the ninth, hitting the leadoff batter and then surrendering a single to ETSU star first baseman Clinton Freeman to put runners on first and second with no outs.
The two Bucs were sacrificed into scoring position with one out, but Bettencourt bounced back to strikeout pinch-hitter Alex Reynolds to end a long battle and then got third baseman Jordan Sanford to pop out to the shortstop to end the game.
Closer Nick Williams normally would have handled the ninth for UT, but the junior from Knoxville pitched 2 1/3 one-hit, no-run innings to put out a fire in the middle of the game. Williams threw just one inning over the weekend in a three-game series against No. 20 Arizona State, and Serrano and his staff planned to use one of their best arms earlier if the need surfaced from this point forward.
Bettencourt handled the job — albeit unconventionally — and the young Californian lowered his earned-run average to 1.17
UT junior closer Nick Williams (UT photo)
“He stayed within himself and made some big pitches when he had to,” Serrano said. “I saw when we first got him here that he kind of had a little bit of an edge of a personality. I’m not afraid to use him late in the game.”
The Vols didn’t need their best pitching performance of the season Tuesday, though, thanks to an opportunistic performance from a young offense that’s been hit-or-miss to this point.
Sophomore third baseman and leadoff hitter Will Maddox (3-for-4, one walk, one double, one RBI, one run scored) and freshman designated hitter Vincent Jackson (3-for-4, one RBI, one run scored) led a UT attack that collected 10 hits and eight walks against eight ETSU pitchers.
The Vols scored several ways, keeping the ball in the park but slapping (and frequently bunting) it all over the place and being aggressive on the bases.
“We did a good job at the plate today,” said Maddox, who also had another gem of defensive night at third base. “We didn’t strikeout as much as we have been. That was our main focus today, was just battling with two strikes, and I think we did a lot better job of that.”
Maddox wasn’t complaining about the ugly win, either.
The Vols went 4-7 against in-state opponents last season and split two games with the Bucs, and the third baseman said any win against any team from Tennessee is a good win.
“It’s always good to win mid-week games, especially against teams that are from this state,” Maddox said. “Those teams are gonna come in ready to play, and they’re gonna play their best game, and we know that. That’s the hardest thing about midweek games, is just coming ready to play. You take positives from it. We were able to win the game, and that’s the only way you can look at it.
UT sophomore 3B Will Maddox (UT photo)
“Last year we did a terrible job in-state. Hopefully this year, starting with today, that’ll turn around.”
The Vols (3-5) jumped all over the Bucs (6-2) with six runs in the top of the third inning, batting around against three ETSU pitchers and getting RBIs from freshman second baseman Jeff Moberg, sophomore right fielder Parker Wormsley, junior center fielder Piece Biley and Jackson, as well as a two-run triple from freshman left fielder Vizcaino into the left center field gap.
“It felt great today,” said Jackson, a talented, 6-foot-5 freshman with power and speed who struggled to start the season. “We were able to get the ball in play and get some things going.”
ETSU came right back, though, batting around against three UT pitchers and putting up five runs in the top of the fourth to pull within 6-5. Senior second baseman Derek Niesman got the rally going with a two-run home run off Esparza, who was promptly pulled from the game.
UT sophomore right-hander Eric Martin failed to limit the damage, though, and Serrano went with Williams to get in some mid-week work and end the inning. Even Williams hit a batter and surrendered a two-run single — the runs were charged to Martin — before retiring the next two Bucs to preserve the lead.
The Vols squandered a solid opportunity to re-pad their lead in the fourth, but they capitalized in the fifth. After loaded the bases with no outs — thanks largely to an error on a routine double-play ground ball to the shortstop — freshman catcher David Houser and freshman shortstop A.J. Simcox poked the ball hard enough for a couple of RBI groundouts that pushed UT’s cushion to 8-5.
Maddox then pushed the lead to 9-5 by slicing a two-out RBI double down the left-field line.
UT freshman right-hander Trevor Charpie walked the first two batters he saw in the seventh, and he hit Niesman to load the bases. After getting the second out on a fly ball to shallow right field and getting two strikes on ETSU third baseman Jordan Sanford, though, Charpie surrendered a two-run single to left center field. Bily got the Vols out of the jam with a good throw that cut down Sanford at second base, but the Bucs had still sliced UT’s lead to 9-7.
UT freshman OF Vance Vizcaino (UT photo)
After making a tremendous catch to the end the top of the eight by holding onto a fly ball while slamming into the fence and infield tarp in foul territory, Maddox led off the bottom of the inning with a single and advance to second on a Moberg sacrifice bunt. The Bucs then intentionally walked UT junior first baseman Scott Price, but submarine-style, right-handed reliever Will Chesney then settled down to get out of the inning by retiring freshman pinch-hitter Andrew Lee and Vizcaino on a pair of flyouts.
UT freshman right fielder Christin Stewart — a powerful prospect who has been penciled into the middle of the lineup basically since stepping foot on campus — started the game but was pulled in the first inning after re-aggravating a pulled hamstring while running out a single.
Serrano said Stewart should be “fine” for this weekend. That would be good news for the Vols, because this weekend should be a big challenge. UT heads to Cary, N.C., for the USA Baseball-Irish Classic, where it’ll play 22nd-ranked Notre Dame on Friday, UMass on Saturday and 25th-ranked Virginia Tech on Sunday.
The Vols and Irish (5-1) are scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. EST on Friday.
“We need to take that step,” Serrano said. “It’s time for us to take that step.”
Jackson didn’t disagree.
“We got a win under our belts, so hopefully we can carry that into the weekend,” the freshman said. “We’re facing some great competition when we go up there, and hopefully we can come out with a couple of wins.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247