KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Drew Gilbert waited until the most dramatic moment possible to deliver the best ending imaginable.
With Tennessee trailing 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning in the Vols’ first home regional game since 2005, the energized sophomore hammered a walk-off grand slam to beat Wright State 9-8.
It was Gilbert’s seventh home run and second grand slam of the season. The last slam came on March 28, when Gilbert walked-off LSU.
The win puts Tennessee in Saturday’s 6 p.m. ET winner’s bracket matchup against Liberty, which beat Duke 11-6 on Friday afternoon. It also keeps the Vols in the hunt for their first College World Series in program history.
‘Always find a way to punch back’
In total, Gilbert’s game-winning play took approximately 35 seconds. But the outfielder savored every last one of them.
After making contact, he walked slowly toward first base, then flipped his bat, stared toward the Wright State dugout and raised his arms toward the heavens.
The ball, meanwhile, continued to rise, speeding high into the Knoxville night before landing well past Tennessee’s bullpen in right field.
Once the game-winner cleared the fence, Gilbert broke into a trot. He skipped and flexed around the bases, slinging his batting helmet toward the outfield in celebration as he neared home plate.
Finally, Gilbert made the winning run official and jumped into the arms of his waiting teammates, who echoed the stadium’s response by going wild from the moment the sophomore connected.
Several times during the celebration, Tennessee’s stadium public address announcer asked fans to make their way to the exits. But no one budged, at least not until after Gilbert headed into the dugout.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a good feeling,” Gilbert said. “I think that’s something that’s special about this team, is that if we get punched in the mouth, we always find a way to punch back—no matter the situation. In the game of baseball, things aren’t always going to go your way, but it’s all about how you respond.”
And Tennessee did, even after a late comeback from an opponent many deemed worthy of more than a 4-seed.
With his team trailing 5-2 in the seventh frame, WSU’s Quincy Hamilton knocked a three-run bomb to give the Raiders the lead at 7-5.
Alex Alders added another Raider run when he sent a solo shot into a cotton candy-swirled sky, putting Wright State an 8-5 advantage going into the ninth inning.
At that point, the game’s picturesque setting almost turned into Tennessee’s worst nightmare.
But then Gilbert happened, sending waves of pandemonium through an orange-clad crowd that stretched Lindsey Nelson Stadium to its seams.
Control sparks comeback
Even with such a raucous audience to fuel their efforts, the Vols fell behind 2-0 before a Luc Lipcius homer cut the deficit in half.
UT used a pair of third-inning bombs from Connor Pavolony and Max Ferguson to make the score 4-2, and Lipcius came through again with an RBI double to make the score 5-2 before Wright State's response.
The Vols' bats went silent after the fifth inning, as Tennessee registered just one hit from that point until the bottom of the ninth.
Then Pavolony belted a one-out single, Max Ferguson followed suit to put runners on the corners, and Jake Rucker drew a walk to set up Gilbert's big moment.
“It’s the reason you fight to play at home,” said Vitello on the crowd and Tennessee’s ninth-inning response. “The inning was basically kind of what you would like your guys to do every inning and have that sense of urgency and that ‘We’re not going to go away’ or ‘We’re not going to die’ type deal.
“You could see their presence—or feel it even,” he said. “Certainly, there was a really good energy coming off of them of determination. Also, everyone was moving slow. Obviously, there were some balls that were well struck. So (I don’t mean they were moving) slow in an athletic manner, but just under control.”
Now, the Vols will look to remain under control against the Flames. Given the emotion from Friday, Vitello said the turnaround will be tough.
“It’s kind of a chance to replay the Arkansas situation, where it was such an emotional situation on Saturday with Fergy helping us win game two,” he said. “You’ve got to bounce back and play.”
Pitching struggles but defense holds strong
Chad Dallas started Friday's game, and he finished with 4.1 innings, four hits, four errors and four runs allowed.
Sean Hunley took over for Dallas, allowing four runs on six hits in 3.2 innings.
Redmond Walsh got the win, allowing a walk on three batters faced in an inning of work.
But it was the Vols’ infield that really came through on the defensive side. In the fifth inning, Ferguson fired a would-be single from shallow right to home plate to keep the tying run from crossing. The play kept the score at 5-4 as Ferguson injected the Vols with a dose of adrenaline.
“Fergy’s play was the definition of Fergy,” Vitello said. “The guy is a winner, and it was an incredible kind of momentum-saver because of the situation. We brought in Sean (Hunley) to put out a fire and he did, but the ball kind of had eyes but he wouldn’t have it. (Ferguson) has taken away more hits than anybody in the country at second base, with all due respect to anybody else.”
With so many different moving parts, Ferguson’s stand encompassed much of Tennessee’s style of play this season. And Pavolony echoed as much.
“You can’t just beat one of us,” he said. “You have to beat all nine of us, including our starting pitcher. I think that’s what makes us so great—we love each other, and you’re going to have to beat all of us, not just one of us.”