Dan Fleser: Sechrist Came Through In The Clutch

  • Monday, June 10, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Along with earning the most important pitching victory of Tennessee’s baseball season, Zander Sechrist also deserved credit for a save

The latter thought went beyond the scope of that statistic, thereby opening consideration for several other non-pitching Vols after a 12-1 NCAA tournament victory over Evansville on Sunday night.

Five different players hit home runs. Christian Moore and Dalton Bargo each homered twice. Bargo, who had been a spectator for the first two Super Regional games, slugged the third pitch he saw off the right-field scoreboard.

But the Vols hit home runs all season and did so at a record-setting clip. They maintained that pace this weekend, setting a postseason single-game record in the clincher. What no Vol had done against Evansville, however, was pitch like Sechrist. The senior left-hander threw a career-high 6.1 innings, allowing six hits while striking out six. He neutralized the Purple Aces’ bats, which posed the biggest threat to Tennessee advancing to the College World Series in Omaha.

“He’s one of the best arms we have,” Bargo said. “There’s a reason that he was starting (Sunday) and he didn’t disappoint by any means.”

Sechrist’s start became crucial after the Purple Aces’ 10-8 victory on Saturday. It was the first victory by a regional No. 4 seed over the tournament’s top overall seed and it was achieved by savaging UT’s pitching. The Vols suddenly were faced with the prospect of losing a Super Regional at home as the tournament’s top seed for the second time in three seasons. And bowing before Evansville would have surpassed the shock and frustration of losing to Notre Dame in 2022.

Sechrist had the talent to manage such a dicey situation. UT coach Tony Vitello recalled recruiting him out of Buford, Ga., and thinking “that kid’s going to pitch in Omaha, just because of the way he competed, the way the ball came out of his hand.”

The pitcher also had the right temperament, specifically a lack of awareness. Sechrist related afterward that teammates AJ Russell and Hunter Ensley, who are roommates, have wondered, “Does Zander like know what’s going on? Or is he just too goofy to just not know what’s going at all?”

Fine with Sechrist, who thought a pressure-packed Sunday still felt like a midweek Tuesday at the ballpark.

He had to think differently, though, about how his work day ended. Vitello came for him after he had recorded the first out of seventh, enabling a fitting tribute.

“He made me put him back out there,” Vitello said. “And then I’m not sure he didn’t make me take him out with his hand gestures or whatever non-verbals we had going on.”

By the time Sechrist handed the baseball to reliever Nate Snead, the Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd of 6,489 was well into its standing ovation. Fellow pitcher and friend Kirby Connell was waiting for Sechrist in foul territory as he exited, wrapping him in a warm embrace.

“He’ll be at my wedding; he’ll be at my funeral; he’ll always be there for me,” Sechrist said. “That friendship will never die.”

Several other teammates convened a gauntlet of gratitude that Sechrist then passed through on his way into the dugout. It was their way of saying: You were there for us tonight. Thank you.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a member of the Tennessee Sportswriters and the U.S. Basketball Writers Halls of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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