For the fans who filled Lindsey Nelson Stadium to capacity this weekend, Tennessee put on quite a show of gratitude.
The Vols staged impromptu fireworks displays throughout their NCAA baseball tournament regional. In this case, the raucous cheers and craning necks were inspired by the 10 home runs UT bashed over the three games.
It was no coincidence that the homers correlated with three victories.
Drew Gilbert, who homered in all three games, struck the decisive blow of Sunday’s 3-1 clinching victory over Liberty, sending a two-run drive over the scoreboard in right field.
It also stands to reason that the chance for more shows will draw more large turnouts for next weekend’s super regional against either LSU or Oregon, which play a final elimination game Monday night in Eugene, Ore. Gilbert’s at-bats alone have become must-see events.
The sophomore center fielder punctuated Tennessee’s 9-8 victory over Wright State on Friday night with a walk-off grand slam. With a mighty swing, Gilbert sent the baseball soaring through the night sky and over UT’s bullpen beyond the right-field fence, erasing a potentially deflating opening defeat. His pyrotechnics started UT’s weekend with a loud bang.
The joyous audience walked off eventually after multiple reminders from the public address announcer that the show was over. Social media already was rife with fans’ videos that captured the occasion from different vantage points around the stadium. A photo included an arrow that pinpointed the baseball in flight. The image brought to mind a UFO sighting, except the flying object was very real.
So was the moment.
The Vols were face-to-face with their worst fears, which had been looming throughout the week. Despite being tabbed a No. 3 national seed for the tournament, they were handed a formidable guest list for the regional. Wright State, the nation’s top hitting team, seemed intent on being a bracket buster, too. The Raiders erased an early three-run deficit by hitting five homers of their own. They lugged their own three-run lead into the ninth and pushed UT to within two outs of the loser’s bracket.
But the Vols managed two singles and a walk to set the stage for Gilbert, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player. Along with saving the Vols, his homer got them back in character. They had won in walk-off fashion six times previously this season. Three of those victories came via homers. Gilbert’s last homer punctuated a victory over LSU on March 28.
“I think that something that’s special about this team,” Gilbert said, “is that if we get punched in the mouth, we always find a way to punch back – no matter the situation.”
On Sunday night, before UT coach Tony Vitello did a running forward roll into his team’s postgame huddle and went into the stands to celebrate with fans, he was asked about how it all began with Gilbert on Friday.
“Our guys took that momentum and ran with it,” Vitello said
And they’re still going. It's on to the next show.
Saved by Sewell: Camden Sewell came to the rescue again for Tennessee, pitching three scoreless innings to save the 9-3 victory over Liberty on Saturday.
The former Cleveland High standout, who pitched six scoreless innings as a starter against Florida at the SEC tournament, allowed just two hits against the Flames and struck out four.