Nichols: If Tennessee can recapture Saturday’s magic, Vandy series loss won’t sting — as much

Lindsey Nelson Stadium was absolutely electric this weekend. Can the Vols continue to translate that momentum to the field?

Note: the brief recaps of each game are out of order in this column. There’s a reason for that. Keep reading, even if you’re confused.

What a weekend for college baseball in Knoxville.

No. 3 Tennessee took on No. 2 Vanderbilt for a much-anticipated top-five series, the first such matchup between the teams. And the Vols looked the part. They battled in Games 1 and 3, and they made some serious magic in Game 2.

But we’ll get to that.

Firstly, let’s establish that Vandy was simply better for most of this weekend.

Tim Corbin’s veteran club affirmed that status by clinching the series — and the top spot in the SEC East — on Sunday, and the visitors from Nashville came out firing on Friday.

So let’s start there.

Game 1: Rocker runs the show to prove he’ll reach The Show

The Commodores’ aces, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, were the story coming into the weekend, and Rocker remained at the forefront after a phenomenal performance on Friday night.

The son of former Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, Kumar is known to pitch with emotion. That emotion was on full display in the first game, as Rocker — the potential No. 1 pick in June’s MLB Draft — seemed to roll into Knoxville with vengeance on his mind.

After a poor freshman performance against Tennessee, the junior appeared rocky again last weekend when he took the first loss of his college career by giving up three home runs in a loss to Georgia.

But Friday proved that loss was an anomaly, as Rocker totaled 98 pitches with eight strikeouts, allowing just two hits and one walk. He shut down the Vols for seven straight innings, and Tennessee didn’t even get its first hit off him until the fifth inning.

At one point, cameras caught the junior saying, “I’m here, I’m f***ing here” after striking out Max Ferguson with a 96 mile-per-hour heater. 

Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker, who was named Most Outstanding Player when the Commodores won the 2019 College World Series. 

Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker, who was named Most Outstanding Player when the Commodores won the 2019 College World Series. 

Rocker also fist-pumped after striking out the side in the first inning, relishing a dominant start against the Vols.

The Commodores had a similar approach at the plate on Friday, as Farragut alum and Knoxville native Parker Noland got Vandy on the board with the first run of the series. He doubled to reach second, then scored from there after another belted ball from Vandy’s hot-hitting lineup.

Corbin’s club plated three runs total in the first six innings, with two off solo shots from Jayson Gonzalez and Carter Young.

Enrique Bradfield Jr., a name Tennessee knew well by Sunday’s end, stretched Vandy’s Friday lead to 4-0 before a CJ Rodriguez single tallied the final margin.

Game 3: Mid-game mistakes cost Vols

Sunday’s rubber match was the same as Friday, albeit with even hotter bats for Vanderbilt and several missed opportunities in a 10-4 Vanderbilt win.

The hot-hitting theme started early on Sunday for the Commodores, as a one-run shot put the visitors on the board in the first inning.

Max Ferguson and Jake Rucker responded in due fashion, though. They hit back-to-back homers in the bottom half to give Tennessee a 2-1 lead.

At that point, Lindsey Nelson Stadium was rocking, and it looked like the Vols would pick up where they left off on Saturday night.

But four stolen bases from Enrique Bradfield Jr., eight two-out runs and inconsistent defense plagued Tennessee (29-8, 10-5) on the final day of the series.

The Commodores (28-6, 11-4) scored three runs in the fourth inning, added two more in the fifth and sixth innings, respectively, and finished off the Vols with one more run in the sixth inning to make the score 10-3.

Before the Commodores’ onslaught, Evan Russell connected on his fourth homer of the weekend to draw the score to 6-3. But that was as close as Tennessee pulled. More on his first three bombs later.

Knoxville native Jackson Greer notched the first hit of his Tennessee career with a home run on Sunday, blasting a seventh-inning bomb to bring the Vols’ tally to four runs on five hits for a 10-4 final score.

Game 2: Russell writes his own chapter in Tennessee’s record books

As mentioned, the Vols lost the series in Sunday’s rubber match.

But the loss wasn’t just frustrating because of missed opportunities on Sunday. It was frustrating because of the emotional wave that Tennessee rode into Sunday morning after a magical Saturday night.

And that magic came straight off the bat of Evan Russell.

With Vanderbilt leading 4-3 in the eighth inning on Saturday, Russell walked toward home plate.

He had already belted two bombs earlier that afternoon, one on back-to-back fourth-inning Tennessee homers as he and catcher Connor Pavolony went yard (Pavolony first) for just the second and third home runs allowed by Vandy starter Jack Leiter this season.

Vandy ace Jack Leiter, who had allowed just one home run in the previous 52 innings coming into Sunday’s rubber match against Tennessee. (Jake Nichols/VR2 on SI)

Vandy ace Jack Leiter, who had allowed just one home run in the previous 52 innings coming into Sunday’s rubber match against Tennessee. (Jake Nichols/VR2 on SI)

“Jack Leiter has the best fastball in the country,” Russell said.

But by the eighth frame, Leiter — another possible lottery pick in the draft this June — had been replaced by Vandy reliever Luke Murphy, whose arm wasn’t quite as strong as his predecessor.

Tennessee took advantage. Drew Gilbert walked, and Jordan Beck followed with a single. Then Luc Lipcius moved Gilbert and Beck to second and third before Murphy hit Pavolony in the hand. 

After Pavolony got checked out (he’s now listed as “day-to-day” per Vitello), pinch-runner Ethan Payne replaced the Vols’ catcher at first. That loaded the bases with Tennessee trailing by a run.

The opportunity was there. The crowd could sense it. And Russell could, too.

Cheers of anticipation rose from across a packed Lindsey Nelson Stadium as Russell’s walk-up music began to play.

The hair on the senior’s arms prickled in response, and Russell — who Vitello called “an in-state kid who’s worn orange his entire life” — dug in for a moment he’ll remember forever.

Murphy kicked and fired a hanging curveball, and Russell’s bat connected on the first pitch.

At first, it seemed like the ball wouldn’t go far enough. Russell’s missile rose slightly coming off the bat, continuing steadily toward the left-center wall.

Bradfield Jr., Vanderbilt’s center fielder, stepped back to the warning track in preparation.

He leaped, stretched out his glove, and.... nothing. It was gone.

Pandemic or not, the orange-clad crowd melted into sheer pandemonium.

Russell ran toward first, then leaped and fist-pumped his way around the bases once he saw the ball disappear. As he rounded third, the senior walk-on began bounding toward his teammates, calling for more noise from an audience that was already going berserk.

Russell stomped on home plate with emphasis, and a moving mass of orange jerseys swallowed him in euphoric celebration as the Vols took a 7-4 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

The entire sequence was, in a word, poetic: the senior walk-on, “a Tennessee kid,” launching a game-winning grand slam to even the series against in-state rival Vanderbilt in a top-five matchup.

In those 30 seconds, I think all 2,263+ people in attendance realized what we missed most when sports screeched to a halt in 2020.

The anticipation. The emotion. The sweet, awe-inspiring deliverance.

“(It) kind of shocked me a little bit,” said Vitello about Russell’s big moment. “But he knew what he wanted to do, and he made it happen.”

Russell’s blast — again, his third of the day — made him the first player in Tennessee baseball history to reach multiple games with three home runs, per Tennessee Stats and Info.

Tennessee added another run later for an 8-4 win, forever etching Russell’s name into UT lore.

Evan Russell and John Fulkerson: two Tennessee legends

Overall, the senior from Lexington has made an indelible impact on Tennessee baseball — despite not being noticed much when his new coach stepped on campus.

“Evan Russell was not a guy that our coaching staff noticed immediately,” Vitello said.

Now, the Vols’ coach will never forget him.

“There ain’t gonna be another kid like that around here,” Vitello told the Vol Network.

Vitello’s wording makes one wonder how many times that phrase has been uttered about other athletes across Tennessee’s campus.

Peerless Price. James Wilhoit. Jauan Jennings. Chris Lofton. Candace Parker. Chris Burke. Even Skylar McBee, who, like Russell was a walk-on.

These are just a few names of athletes who have created memorable moments for the Vols during their time in orange. On Saturday, Russell added his own name to that exclusive list.

Burke, the 2001 SEC Player of the Year who helped lead UT to its third College World Series appearance, paid a handsome compliment to Russell via Twitter on Saturday.

Obviously, the senior’s three-homer impact was worth plenty of praise. But could Russell’s hat trick, combined with his overall effect on the program, even become worthy of a statue at some point?

Shoot, I don’t know,” said Tennessee’s Saturday starter, Will Heflin. “That’d be a good-looking statue. He may put other people to shame. At least like a road or a stop sign. I don’t think anybody’s going to forget Evan Russell here for a long time.”

While Vitello wasn’t asked about the statue idea, he did compare Russell and Heflin — a Morristown native and another “Tennessee kid” — to a certain Kingsport native that might deserve a statue near Thompson-Boling Arena.

Or, as Heflin put it for Russell, “at least a road or stop sign.”

After Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel threw out the first pitch for Friday’s Game 1, UT basketball senior John Fulkerson threw out the first pitch before Game 2. True to his fan-favorite form, Fulkerson hung around for the game and Sunday’s finale to greet people and hand out popcorn.

Vitello may not have noticed the popcorn or fan greetings. But he did reference how Fulkerson has been a “grinder” on the court, and how Russell and Heflin have both reflected that mindset for Tennessee baseball.

“Will Heflin, Evan Russell, they’re our Fulky,” Vitello said. “I’m a Karma guy. That’s Karma.

“(Russell) has an immense amount of pride in Tennessee. I find it ironic that Fulky threw out the first pitch (Saturday). Those two are very similar.”

Russell affirmed that pride. When asked to describe his Twitter bio that reads “Everything Tennessee,” Russell reiterated where his loyalties lie.

“If the Tennessee Volunteers are winning, my life is going well,” he said. “That locker room, that family in there is the most important thing I have.”

Turning point takeaways

As mentioned, there was a reason that the recaps from Games 1 and 3 came before No. 2.

This weekend, Vanderbilt was better, both on paper and on dirt. But for Tennessee, there are more positives than negatives to take away, which is why the best moment was saved for last — much like Evan Russell’s grand slam on Saturday.

And in those euphoric moments, especially right before and after Russell’s electrifying hit?

Tennessee couldn’t be beaten — on the field or in the crowd.

Russell said Saturday’s crowd was “probably the loudest (he’s) ever heard that stadium” when he walked to the plate, and that the noise gave him more confidence to attack the first pitch.

“My objective that AB was just trying to hit a sac fly,” Russell said. “I got a little more barrel. Thank God the ball got out because that was a pretty cool moment I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

Added Vitello: “You felt like the last one was to the wall, and the fans blew it out with the energy in that park.”

“You can feel it,” continued Vitello on the energy at the Vols’ home field. “You don’t have to see or even hear it. You can feel it. Our guys have done things to magnetize people coming here, and they’re making our guys better by being here. If our guys continue to feed this fire, it can be special.”

A previous column mentioned that the Legends have turned Lindsey Nelson Stadium into a concrete asylum.

Against Vanderbilt, the level of insanity ratcheted even higher.

From the lines formed outside before Game 1, to the mayhem that came in Game 2, to the willingness to stick around and hope for a rally in Game 3 — Tennessee’s fans formed a new bond with their team this weekend.

“It just goes to show that we’ve got great fans too,” said Heflin, citing more prominent parks and programs across the SEC. “And now we’ve given them a reason to come.”

But the benefits go both ways.

“They’re showing our players what’s possible around here,” said Vitello. “I got to think there’s going to be some extra motivation in the weight room (on Monday).”

Granted, some motivation will also come from the fact that Tennessee could have won on Sunday. If they had capitalized more, the Vols could have clinched first place in the SEC East. 

Instead, they’re left to look toward the next opponents: Tennessee Tech on Tuesday and Texas A&M in College Station next weekend.

That’s where the best news comes in for the Vols, though. Even with Connor Pavolony in a soft cast until further notice, and even with a tough second half of SEC play to go — Tony Vitello’s team made a statement in a weekend that brought invaluable experience.

“This weekend was insanely valuable,” Vitello said. “I literally can’t put it into words. We needed to experience a weekend that was hyped up by the media and full of intense situations. It’ll serve us well for the postseason.”

Vanderbilt entered this weekend having won two of the past five College World Series. With those two national titles, four appearances in Omaha, nine regional championships and three SEC Tournament championships, Vanderbilt has become the standard in college baseball.

And this year’s Commodores fit that standard. But Tennessee went toe-to-toe with them, anyway.

“We’re not gonna see anyone with better stuff than Rocker and Leiter,” Vitello said. “We’re not gonna see anyone faster than Bradfield. We know we can compete at this level.”

That’s a bold statement to make, especially in a league like the SEC.

But this is a bold team, with a bold coach and even bolder fans.

The combination of the three produced incredible results this weekend, especially on Saturday.

If Tennessee can recapture that magic and apply the lessons learned, then the losses will have been well worth it — especially if these teams meet again.

And something tells me they will.