While the Tennessee Lady Vols were finished early on Saturday, the Vols battled hard late into the evening. Two vastly different experiences ended very differently, too.
Hunter Ensley, who was 0-for-6 at the plate, stroked an RBI double in the 14th inning, giving the baseball Vols a 6-5 victory over host Clemson in an NCAA regional game they essentially had to win twice.
Zane Denton’s two-out, three-run homer in the ninth, his second homer of the game, erased a two-run deficit and temporarily gave Tennessee the lead. Clemson, which had a 17-game winning streak, countered with a run in the bottom of the inning, spoiling an otherwise brilliant relief performance by Chase Burns.
Conversely, the Lady Vols’ risky decision to start freshman pitcher Karlyn Pickens rewarded Oklahoma. The two-time defending national champions smacked two home runs, amassed six runs in the third inning and rolled to a 9-0 run-rule softball victory at the Women’s College World Series.
Some observations and thoughts about a memorable day for UT’s diamond teams:
-Tennessee’s pitching, its greatest strength, came through. Burns relieved starter Chase Dollander in the fifth and threw 98 pitches. He escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the 10th. Chase Halversen came on in the 11th and finished.
-Replay worked for and against the baseball Vols. The first decision rewarded them with an inning-ending double play in the 10th, thereby avoiding defeat. In the 11th an inning-ending out call was upheld, preventing them from scoring the lead run.
-The only plausible reason for starting Pickens was Oklahoma’s potent lineup had a .214 batting average against pitches 70 miles per hour or faster. The right-hander struck out Sooners lead-off hitter Jayda Coleman on a 76-mph pitch.
The auspicious start belied the continuation of Pickens’ recent struggles. In her previous 10 appearances, she had allowed 27 earned runs. Her suspect pitch command the past two months had overshadowed her velocity.
After surviving two walks and two wild pitches in the first inning, her glove betrayed her in the second. She couldn’t snag Jayda Coleman’s two-out smash. Tiare Jennings followed with a three-run homer. Pickens’ day was done.
“I like what Pickens can do; I like her variety of pitches,” UT coach Karen Weekly said during an in-game ESPN interview. “That was really what went into it (along with) watching (Oklahoma) and how they approach at-bats. I knew it was a risk and I take full responsibility for it.”
- Not using either Ashley Rogers or Payton Gottshall after lifting Pickens was raising a white flag. Maybe that was a smart move, considering Oklahoma (58-1) now has won 50 consecutive games. But as Tennessee’s pitching struggles continued, they spawned a ripple effect. Left-fielder Rylie West’s hesitation turned a likely fly out into a two-run double. Right-fielder Katie Taylor’s soft throw back to the infield after a catch allowed Oklahoma’s Coleman to advance to third base, where she scored on a subsequent wild pitch.
“We let things unravel a little bit,” Weekly said. “But it all starts in the (pitcher’s) circle, no question.”
-Clemson’s Cam Cannarell hit a three-run homer against the Vols in the fifth inning. The Tigers’ freshman was just getting started. He drove in the tying run in the ninth with a two-out double. He was done by the 12th, however, thrown out for chirping Denton coming off the field after the Tigers escaped a Vols’ scoring threat.
Clemson starter Caden Grice allowed six hits and struck out 10. The Vols chased the left-hander with two-out singles by Christian Moore and Blake Burke in the ninth. Reliever Ryan Ammons relieved and surrendered Denton’s homer.
- The Vols will play the Charlotte-Clemson winner Sunday night.
-The Lady Vols’ loss sent them to the other side of the WCWS bracket, away from Oklahoma, where they will face Oklahoma State Sunday night. Both Rogers and Gottshall will be fresh. But so will the memory of Saturday’s meltdown. Based on Weekly’s ESPN interview, Tennessee (50-9) addressed the latter issue before the final out.
“We just talked about it,” Weekly said. “If this game ends like it does, we don’t want it to be the end of our tournament.”
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.