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Tennessee's incredible season ends in Knoxville super regional

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Tennessee's season ended before Omaha, but it was still one for the ages.

Cortland Lawson photo courtesy of Tennessee athletics.

In the stunner of the college baseball season, Notre Dame scored a 7-3 win over Tennessee in the Knoxville super regional to take the series and advance to the College World Series. And before rewinding the events of Sunday, it’s first worth a look at what the Volunteers accomplished before bowing out on Sunday.

Some of the many highlights:

  • It wasn’t just the fact that the Vols went 57-9; what made that truly impressive was that it wasn’t a statistical fluke. Tennessee’s Pythagorean record (that’s using runs scored and runs allowed to predict what a team’s win-loss record should be; the Vols scored 613 runs and allowed 192) actually pegged Tennessee as a better team (.911, expected record of 60-6) than the record shows. Of all that can be said about Tennessee’s season, that may be the one fact that most underlines the Vols’ dominance. 
  • Tennessee finished with a 2.51 ERA, which will lead the country by a substantial margin (second-place Southern Miss was 3.26 coming into Sunday) despite playing 43 games in hitter-friendly Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Coming into Sunday, the Vols also led the country in hits allowed per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP (walks-plus-hits divided by innings pitched).
  • Tennessee hit 157 home runs, fourth-most in NCAA history. It leads the country in runs scored and slugging percentage and even ranked 47th in steals coming into Sunday. 
  • The Vols’ offensive and pitching numbers were blinding enough to eclipse everything else, but UT’s .980 fielding percentage coming into Sunday ranked 14th nationally, putting the Vols in the top five percent nationally. 
  • It was a team effort. The Vols had our Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year in Chase Dollander and our Freshman of the Year in Drew Beam (and for good measure, our Coach of the Year in Tony Vitello) and placed eight players on one of our four All-SEC teams

As for what happened on Sunday…

Burns is a future first-rounder and pitched like it most of Sunday. The Vols' freshman star had multiple pitches working and excelled at catching the outside corner, walked just one hitter and hit none while fanning five. His final line (6 2/3 innings, four runs) didn’t do justice to the totality of the effort. 

But baseball sometimes rewards timing more than totality of effort. Unfortunately for Burns, things came unwound about the time he hit the 80-pitch mark on a 90-ish degree day 

The trouble started with a ground-rule double in the sixth from Carter Putz with one out. Then, with two outs, David LaManna—who had one home run all year—hit a line drive the other way to right that just barely cleared the five-foot-high, 320-foot-deep fence in right. 

Compounding the problem, the Vols—without suspended pitching coach Frank Anderson due to a Friday suspension—seemingly got caught flat-footed when the Fighting Irish started hitting Burns in the seventh as two of Tennessee’s best relievers (Camden Sewell and Kirby Connell) scurried to get ready in the bullpen in the midst of this.

Burns then gave up a bomb to the pull side to righty Jack Brannigan as the Irish took a 4-3 lead. Sewell then came on and got the last out. 

But the senior ran into trouble in the eighth due to a a hit batsman and a Trey Lipscomb throwing error. The Vols went to Connell, a lefty who’d been nearly untouchable (he finished with a 1.66 ERA in 38 innings) but things again took an unexpected turn as the lefty gave up a pair of run-scoring hits as the Notre Dame lead expanded to four. 

And then the Vols—against whom no lead had been safe all year—uncharacteristically went 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth, before Christian Moore’s one-out walk in the ninth was erased when Evan Russell hit into a game-ending double play. 

The Vols seemed to set the tone early for another win as Burns set down the Irish in order in the first, and then, Luc Lipcius (Tennessee’s No. 2 hitter) swatted a no-doubt home run to right-center. 

But Notre Dame got even in the second when Jack Zyska reached on an infield single, stole second and third and then came home on a ground-out. 

Irish starter Luke Simon struggled with his control and was pulled with two out and two on in the second, and Seth Stephenson greeted Alex Rao with the go-ahead single to score Jorel Ortega

In the fifth, Stephenson slammed a double into the left-field corner to score Cortland Lawson to make the lead 3-1.

But the Vols’ bats went quiet from there as they had two on in the fifth with just one out and failed to score further, then, Russell hit into another double play to end the sixth.

Historic seasons that end in historic games like this get replayed for decades. Anderson’s unavailability and the seeming failure to have another reliever ready before the back-to-back home runs will be talked about for a while. But as much as that, maybe “that’s the randomness of baseball” applies here too, as the Vols became just the latest in the confounding failures of No. 1 overall seeds in this tournament for the last quarter-century suggests.