Through 66 games this season, the Tennessee baseball team had scored in the first or second inning 41 times and posted a 33-8 record when doing so. Nine pitches into the Vols’ opening game of the College World Series against Virginia, it appeared they were on track to make it 42 games. Starting pitcher Andrew Abbott responded and the Hoos took advantage in a 6-0 win Sunday.
Abbott walked the leadoff batter Liam Spence and UT second baseman Max Ferguson singled to put runners at the corners. That’s not an ideal start obviously, particularly against a team used to capitalizing early on offense. Abbott’s last nine pitches of the frame? Four-pitch strikeout swinging. Pop fly. Another four-pitch strikeout swinging.
“Early on in the game I was leaving stuff up and that’s why we [were in a jam] in the first inning,” Abbott said.
Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said it’s not uncommon for starting pitchers to sometimes struggle in their first CWS start, but he notes that Abbott handled it with poise and calmness.
“Sometimes here in Omaha that first inning can be a difficult inning for starting pitchers,” O’Connor said. “He handled it like a champion; he handled it like a winner. He continued to make pitches and he was able to get out of it. Those momentum swings that you can see in these games when the competition level is so elite, you have to have guys to step up and do that.”
Tennessee coach Tony Vitello agreed.
“It definitely impacted the game,” said Vitello, the NCBWA National Coach of the Year. “There’s a chance to throw a blow in the first inning and then a couple other times – you don’t really know how the game would have changed.”
First inning heroics concluded, Abbott still wasn’t quite done with the escapes.
With the Hoos nursing a one-run lead thanks to Logan Michaels’ solo bomb in the third, the senior from Halifax County found himself in another jam in the fifth inning. Surrendering his second leadoff walk of the game and giving up an ensuing single again too, Tennessee was back in business. Both runners advanced 90-feet on Connor Pavolony’s sacrifice bunt.
That’s when Virginia’s defense took over in support of Abbott. A sharply hit line drive landed harmlessly in the glove of a leaping Max Cotier, keeping the runners at bay. Nic Kent concluded the defensive show, ranging from his shortstop position to the other side of second base to snatch a hard-hit ground ball, turned his hips, and hurled a laser to Jake Gelof for the out.
Looking for the Houdini hat trick, Abbott faced trouble in the sixth inning too.
Jake Rucker singled to lead off the inning and Drew Gilbert smacked a single to right field. With two runners on with no outs once again, the Vols bunted and Abbott made a nice play on the ball to get the runner out at second, but Tennessee had a runner in scoring position with one out. As he did in the first inning, however, Abbott responded. He struck out the last two hitters, freezing the first batter with a 90 MPH heater on the outside corner. A seven-pitch at-bat followed , but Abbott won the battle as he fanned the seven-hole hitter on a filthy, swing-and-miss, 84 MPH change-up also on the plate’s edge.
“Abbott made big, key clutch pitches with runners in scoring position in multiple innings,” O’Connor said. “That’s what your Friday night guy, your leader, your All-American needs to do to win here in Omaha and he certainly delivered.”
Abbott’s fastball played well up in the zone and the Tennessee hitters just could not lay off the pitch. O’Connor noted that Abbott displayed the type of execution you need in the CWS.
“He’s able to elevate his fastball, and in these baseball terms, he’s got pretty special spin rate and can throw it through the letters and get guys to chase,” O’Connor said. “His breaking ball was good and the change-up to righties. Tennessee is talented and they can beat you with one swing of the bat. So, limiting the damage by not walking guys, you got to execute on the them.”
“Andrew Abbott was outstanding,” Vitello added. “He was in and out of the zone and clearly effective [and] he made pitches when he needed to.”
Abbott acknowledge that a big part of him being able to pitch out of trouble was working to stay in the moment. He credited his catcher Michaels and his defense for backing him up too.
“Me and Logan were looking at execution of pitches,” Abbott said. “It was mainly calming me down, telling me to take a breath, refocus and execute. That’s the name of the game and that’s what you want to do as a pitcher, you want to execute and get outs for your team.
“After that happened, I started spotting up, and they’re a good hitting team so putting the ball in play wasn’t that bad,” the southpaw added. “Not relying on yourself [as a pitcher], relying on your defense, Logan behind the plate and the guys in the dugout cheering for you and pushing you to finish. That just means the world and that’s what really set me to the mentality that I need to put a stop to this, I’m in my own jam and I want to get out of it.”
Abbott tossed six shutout innings, giving up five hits. His 10 strikeouts were the most ever by a Cavalier pitcher at the College World Series. Abbott is just four strikeouts away from passing Danny Hultzen for most strikeouts in a single season in UVA baseball history. Hultzen had 8 strikeouts at the CWS in 2011 in an illness-shortened start.
Abbott stranded seven Tennessee runners in six innings pitched, four of them in scoring position. The Vols went 0-8 in the game with runners in scoring position (RISP). It’s the fourth time in nine NCAA games this season that Virginia’s pitching and defense has held a team to .000 batting with RISP. It was only the 11th time this season that the Tennessee offense was held to two runs or less in a game and only the third time the Volunteers were shut out.
Vitello said regardless of the clutch pitches, getting out of jams and great defense, ”… the narrative still would have been there were moments where we didn’t play baseball the way we need to, the way we’re capable of and in the fashion that got us to play in this stadium.”
Coming out of Super Regional play, Tennessee ranked in the top 25 nationally in runs (6th – 471), hits (4th – 642), doubles (3rd – 133), home runs (4th – 98), slugging percentage (23rd – .477), and walks (5th – 330). UVA completely shut down the potent Volunteer offense that cranked out 16 home runs in the regionals and supers. It’s the third time during this postseason run, that Cavalier pitching took the bite out of potent top 5 home-run offenses after doing the same to Old Dominion and Dallas Baptist in Columbia.
With balls not leaving the park, the defense needed to take care of contact inside the fences. O’Connor acknowledged that in the College World Series, defensive players sometimes get tight and game-breaking plays can occur. The Virginia defense took care of business in that regard.
“Having been to many games in [TD America Park and Rosenblatt Stadium], I’ve seen [players] sometimes not handle the pressure in the moment real well, but [our guys] did defensively,” O’Connor said. “Max played great. Nic did in the middle. If you’re going to win here in Omaha against these kinds of teams, that infield defense has to be there, and it has to be great.”
Kent and Cotier combined with Jake Gelof for one additional “great” defensive gem in support of relief pitcher Matt Wyatt late in the game. With a runner on first with one out in the eighth, Vols leftfielder Evan Russell bounced a hard grounder to the shortstop side of second base. Kent reached it, did a flawless flip in one motion to Cotier, who made a 180 degree turn and fired a bullet that Gelof dug out of the dirt to complete the 6-4-3, inning-ending double play.
Tennessee’s ace did not fare as well. Chad Dallas improved to 11-1 on the season with a win over LSU
in Tennessee’s Super Regional opener. Dallas led the team by a long way with 118 strikeouts during the year compared to just 19 walks and he allowed just 44 earned runs in 96.2 innings. He was unable to get his club off to the start they were hoping for thanks to a break-through seventh inning. Battling in a 1-0 contest, Dallas gave up four earned runs and eight hits to the Hoos with most of the damage coming in that pivotal seventh. Despite throwing a mere 10.16 pitches per inning, the UT starter last just 6.1 frames.
“Chad threw the ball really well,” Vitello said. “But at times there was a pitch here or there that lacked conviction. That’s going to pop up when you throw, you know, 75 pitches or so. They did a good job of executing on some of those pitches.”
Only twice this season did Dallas allow more than 8 hits and only twice did he surrender more than four earned runs in an outing. He won at South Carolina (10-4) and defeated UVA’s next CWS opponent, Mississippi State (12-2 in Knoxville), in May.
The Vols had allowed only three or fewer earned runs in 13 of their last 20 games, but the Hoos prevailed 6-0. Overall, UVA hit .336 in the CWS opener and put 5 of 9 leadoff hitters on base. The team sported a .333 average with RISP. In the big seventh inning, Virginia executed a sacrifice bunt, stole second base twice, and scored four runs to take a commanding lead. It was the third consecutive game that the Hoos score four runs in the seventh inning. The Hoos’ final insurance run was scored off a bases-loaded, no outs, double play ball that Cotier pulled to the first base side of the infield.
Not surprising, Coach O’Connor was elated with his offense.
“From an offensive perspective it was a total, collective team effort,” O’Connor beamed. “We capitalized on some opportunities in the big seventh inning with some stolen bases and some big clutch hits.”
The Hoos will face Mississippi State on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. The Bulldogs defeated Texas in their opening round game, 2-1.