But Tennessee (56-7) scored one off reliever Dawson Brown in the seventh before the Volunteers broke through in the top of the ninth. The first two batters reached base, one via a force-out at second that was overruled by video replay and judged safe. The third batter, Jordan Beck, a top-25 draft prospect, seared a line drive to center that centerfielder Colin Hall first came in on before it went over his head to drive in a run and tie the game. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and then Brown hit Trey Lipscomb with a pitch to force in a run and give the Volunteers a 5-4 lead. Tennessee didn’t stop until the lead was 9-4.
The Jackets answered with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Tech had the game-winning run at the plate with Colin Hall batting with the bases loaded. It was potentially a moment for the coach’s son to extend his career and amend for his fielding error. But Hall took a 3-2 pitch for a called third strike, ending the game.
The Jackets missed chances to add to the early lead, stranding six runners. In the bottom of the fifth, waved around by third base coach James Ramsey, Andrew Jenkins was easily thrown out at home trying to score on a misplayed grounder up the middle. Hall’s misplay of Beck’s line drive was costly.
Still, for a team that had been powered a historically prolific offense but also struggled to find any consistency with its pitching – the Jackets were 228th in Division I in ERA going into the game at 6.61 – it was an agonizing but perhaps unsurprising conclusion to the season.
The Jackets began the night fighting the odds. First, they were playing their second game of the day while the Volunteers arrived late Sunday afternoon rested from their win over Campbell on Saturday night. It was Tech’s fourth game of the weekend and Tennessee’s third. Further, Tech had used up its three most-used starters and sent out Maxwell to make his first start since March, while the Volunteers started Beam, a weekend starter with an 8-1 record, 2.60 ERA and a miniscule .184 opponent batting average.
The Volunteers were supported by a full-throated crowd clad in orange and white eager to see their powerhouse team advance to the super-regional round.
And, not least, Tennessee was the clear favorite on paper. The Volunteers came into the game leading the country in ERA (2.35), home runs per game (2.42) and slugging percentage (.611). Authors of a historic season at the plate, the Jackets had a lineup to match, ranking in the top 10 nationally in batting average, scoring and home runs per game, among other statistical categories, but their ERA betrayed their season-long struggles on the mound, 228th at 6.61.
Preventing the Volunteers from winning the regional would likely take the pitching staff performing at or near its peak, and then doing so again Monday.
Tech took field just after 7 p.m., about an hour and a half after its 16-5 losers bracket win over Campbell. The sun was setting in east Tennessee, enveloping the diamond in a warm glow under blue skies. Beyond the outfield, trees covered a mountainous bluff on the opposite bank of the Tennessee River.
It was an idyllic setting as the Jackets sought their first super regional berth since 2006 at the expense of a team favored to win the national championship. The night ended almost four hours later, the Volunteers celebrating with their fans and the Jackets left to ponder what could have been.