Almost 80 days ago, Tennessee starting pitcher Chad Dallas struck out 11 batters in seven innings and gave up one earned run to negate an almost flawless performance by LSU starting pitcher Landon Marceaux in a 3-1 Vols’ victory in Knoxville to open an SEC series that UT would sweep by a combined four runs.
Saturday night, it was same result in the same locale on a much bigger stage.
Dallas whiffed a career high 12 batters in six innings and allowed one earned run, erasing a brilliant performance by Tigers’ starter Ma’Khail Hilliard in 4-2 victory in the opening game in the NCAA’s Knoxville Super Regional.
The teams meet in game two Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. CT. A win by Tennessee (49-16) would put the Vols in the College World Series for the first time since 2005 and end the 39-year career of LSU coach Paul Mainieri who previously announced his retirement. A win by the Tigers (38-24) would force a deciding game three on Monday.
A three-run Tennessee sixth inning off LSU reliever Javen Coleman erased a 2-1 Tigers’ lead as the Vols put the game in the hands of senior reliever Sean Hunley. He pitched three scoreless innings, retiring LSU shortstop Jordan Thompson on a strikeout for the game’s final out with a pair of Tigers on second and third bases.
LSU finished with twice as many strikeouts (16) as hits (8), a reason why Tennessee was able to win despite getting just six hits with three each off Hilliard and Coleman.
The Tigers’ first four hitters in their batting order – right fielder Dylan Crews, second baseman Zach Arnold, first baseman Tre’ Morgan and left fielder Gavin Dugas – were a combined 3 for 16 with nine strikeouts.
Morgan, who leads LSU in batting average, struck out in all four of his at-bats. Dugas, MVP of last weekend’s Eugene Regional, had a hit and three strikeouts.
“It was very similar to the first game we had here earlier in the year going up against Dallas,” Mainieri said. “He threw an awful lot of sliders like he did in March and like in March we didn’t have an answer for it.”
Dallas (11-1) gave up five of LSU’s eight hits, including a second-inning solo homer to LSU third baseman Cade Doughty in a driving rainstorm just before a 50-minute lightning delay to start the third inning.
“I felt like it was my game to continue,” Dallas said of coming back after the rain delay. “In my heart and mind, there was nothing that was going to take me out of that game. The competitor inside me didn’t want to get taken out of the game.”
LSU got one more run off Dallas in the top of the fifth when center fielder Mike Bianco singled to left field for a second consecutive at-bat, and advanced to second when designated hitter Cade Beloso was hit by pitch.
Then, with Thompson attempting to sacrifice bunt, Bianco stole third and scored for a 2-1 Tigers’ lead when Tennessee catcher Connor Pavolony bounced his throw past Vols’ third baseman Jake Rucker.
LSU never crossed the plate again, even after Dallas exited after six innings. Reliever Hunley gave up three hits and struck out four of the 11 batters he faced to close the game.
Wanting to save staff ace Landon Marceaux to start game two, Mainieri’s calculated risk to start Hilliard in Saturday’s opener paid off.
The steady senior, who had six strikeouts and no walks, had just a brief moment of shakiness when he got back on the mound after the substantial lightning delay.
Tennessee right fielder Jordan Beck doubled to open the Vols’ third, moved to third and then scored on two consecutive ground outs for a 1-1 tie. After a single by shortstop Liam Spence, Hilliard struck out UT second baseman Max Ferguson to quell any further damage.
“It (the rain delay) did kind of affect me, but being a senior I shouldn’t have let it bother me,” Hilliard said. “I should have made sure I was making tough pitches, getting ahead in counts and trusting in my defense.”
Hilliard got back in rhythm in the fourth and fifth innings when he struck out four of seven batters. At that point, he had thrown just 76 pitches and appeared fresh enough to pitch at least one more inning.
But Mainieri pulled Hilliard after five innings, inserting lefty freshman Coleman who dazzled Oregon last Sunday in the Eugene Regionals throwing six innings of three-hit, one-run relief in a 4-1 win.
“I was really happy to get five good innings out of Ma’Khail, he was outstanding,” Mainieri said. “But we were getting ready to go to the top of the (Tennessee batting) order (in the top of the sixth) and they’d already seen Ma’Khail twice.
“I had a left-handed pitcher I had confidence in and I thought it was the move to make. Javen pitched well. They (Tennessee) only had one hard hit ball off him.”
That was Rucker’s scorching ground ball double past a diving Doughty down the left field line. It came after Coleman issued a one-out walk to Vols’ second baseman Max Ferguson.
Rucker and Ferguson scored on RBI fielders’ choice ground balls by center fielder Drew Gilbert and first baseman Lip Lipcius.
On Gilbert’s grounder to Doughty, Ferguson scored, Doughty bailed on trying to tag Rucker as he advanced to third base and then threw too late to first base to get Gilbert for the second out. It was a costly mistake by Doughty because Gilbert eventually scored on Beck’s RBI single for a 4-2 lead that stood as the margin of victory.
“You can say everything happens for a reason,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said, “but I’d say everything seems to happen crazy to this team. Sometimes we do it to ourselves, sometimes we overcome those things. It’s just klnd of part of our mantra. We just seem to find a way.”