STARKVILLE, Miss. – Tennessee baseball closer Andrew Lee worked out of a pair of bases-loaded jams, with nobody out in the eighth and just one out in the ninth, to help the Vols claim their third consecutive Southeastern Conference victory as they held on to defeat No. 21 Mississippi State, 4-2, on Friday night at Dudy Noble Field.
“That is a big win for us here in Starkville,” UT head coach Dave Serrano said. “Our guys should be excited. I’m not going to dwell on what we did to allow them back in the game. We were able to overcome that. We came here with a business-like attitude. We have 27 guys in that dugout who are shoulder-to-shoulder and have each other’s back no matter what bad things are going.
“They stayed with each other tonight and I think that is why we came out on top. Our goal is to play for a lot longer than what the schedule has us to play and this was a good beginning to what we are set out to do.”
Looking for its first berth in the SEC Tournament since 2007, UT improved to 29-18 on the season and 11-14 in league play, while the Bulldogs move to 31-19 overall and 14-11 in conference.
Lee finished with four huge strikeouts in two innings of work as he earned his third save of the year. His effort allowed freshman starter Hunter Martin to improve to 4-3 as he worked 6.1 strong innings in which he yielded just two runs on six hits while striking out five.
At the plate, freshman Nathaniel Maggio was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored while senior Taylor Smart reached base in all four of his at-bats with two singles, two walks and a run scored. Sophomore Christin Stewart also had two hits in the contest.
With the Vols leading by a pair going into the bottom of the eighth, Mississippi State took advantage of two walks and a bunt single to load the bases with nobody out. Lee promptly buckled down and got two huge strikeouts, punching out MSU’sCody Brown and Jake Vickerson, before falling behind in the count 3-0 to Derrick Armstrong. Following a brief pep talk by Serrano, Lee came back with strikes on the next three pitches to fan his third straight batter and escape unscathed.
Mississippi State would make things interesting again in the bottom of the ninth against Lee. After a three-pitch strikeout to open the final stanza, the Bulldogs got back-to-back singles and another free pass to load the bases once again. This time, Lee was able to induce a pop-up to Maggio at first and a flyball to Vincent Jackson in center to end the game.
All four of the Vols’ runs came in the top of the fourth, which Stewart got rolling by stroking a leadoff double to right-center. A catcher’s interference call with Senzel at the plate, a sac bunt by Jackson and a walk to Smart promptly loaded the bases before Maggio chopped a single to right to bring in the game’s first two runs.
After a pitching change, MSU reliever Jacob Lindgren would uncork three wild pitches over the next three batters to allow Smart and Maggio to make their way around the basepaths to cross the plate as well and give the Volunteers a strong 4-0 advantage.
The Bulldogs got one run back in the bottom of the sixth when Seth Heck came through with an RBI base knock. MSU had a chance to cut into its deficit even more with two on and just one out but UT catcher Tyler Schultz gunned down a runner at third and Martin ended the inning with his fifth punchout of the game to shut down the threat.
State would cut into UT’s lead once more the following frame when C.T. Bradford blooped a two-out, 2-2 pitch to center to bring in a run to make it a 4-2 ball game. On in relief of Martin, Andy Cox would get a groundball to short to leave two Bulldog baserunners stranded and set up the dramatic final two innings.
Tennessee will send senior right-hander Nick Williams (5-4, 3.73) to the mound on Saturday as it looks to win its second SEC series in a row. Mississippi State will counter with junior southpaw Ross Mitchell (7-4, 2.12) with the game’s first pitch set for 7 p.m. ET. Richard Cross and Joe Beckwith will have the call as the game will be televised on CSS.