Tennessee baseball takes the South Carolina series, wins first SEC East title since 1997

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Sean Hunley allowed a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth inning of a one-run game against South Carolina on Saturday.

The Tennessee baseball closer struck out three straight Gamecocks, stranding the runner at second and capping UT's regular season with a 5-4 win and an SEC East title for the first time since 1997.

The No. 4 Vols edged No. 2 Vanderbilt by a half-game after Kentucky rallied to beat the Commodores 7-5 on Saturday evening. UT finished 42-14 (20-10 SEC), its most regular-season wins and SEC wins since 1995. 

Tennessee baseball will be the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament

Tennessee secured a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament, meaning UT has a bye through the single-elimination first round that seeds Nos. 5-12 have to face. 

"We will get to that," Vols coach Tony Vitello said. "We told the guys we will get sorted on what is to come. We were just reflecting on a fun 56 games."

The Vols will be the No. 2 seed in Hoover, Alabama, as SEC East champions. Arkansas is the No. 1 seed.

Tennessee was in line for the No. 3 seed until Kentucky topped Vanderbilt. Kentucky trailed 4-2 with two outs in the ninth. The Wildcats hit two homers to win 7-5.

The Vols entered Saturday a half-game behind Vanderbilt after UT's loss Friday to South Carolina. But UT's win combined with Vanderbilt's loss bumped the Vols into first. The Commodores finished with 29 regular-season SEC games played due to a weather cancellation against Alabama on May 9.

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The Vols made noise on the road again

UT was unbeaten in weekend road series this season, going 6-0 with a 5-0 mark in SEC play. Tennessee also had not won a series in Columbia, South Carolina, since 2006.

"That is why you see SEC teams make a run in the postseason," Vols coach Tony Vitello said. "This is exactly what a Super Regional looks like. If you can experience it before it happens, then if you are fortunate enough for it to happen, then you are ready.” 

UT rode a six-run fourth inning and another stout start from Chad Dallas to a series-opening 10-4 win Thursday. The Vols fell 3-2 on Friday because of a three-run homer from USC's Brady Allen.

Tennessee's bottom five hitters in the lineup had seven of UT's eight hits. Catcher Connor Pavolony hit a three-run homer in the fourth Saturday. Luc Lipcius homered in the first two games. 

"The whole team knows, we can score at any point in the order," Vitello said.

Blade Tidwell is becoming a star

Blade Tidwell has thrown at least seven innings in his past three starts. The Vols freshman, who pitched into the eighth against Arkansas on May 15, allowed three hits through the first seven innings against the Gamecocks.

“He was outstanding," Vitello said. "He picked up where he left off last week. Arkansas is the No. 1 team in the country hands down. For him to throw the way he did against them, I think gave him a lot of confidence."

Tidwell allowed a leadoff homer to Allen, then settled in until the eighth when he allowed three straights hits before Vitello turned to Hunley.

“Blade has earned the right to roll into the game as deep as he can," Vitello said. "I think the biggest thing is, if somehow we would have not put Blade out there in the eighth or yanked him after one base hit, the happiest people in the world would have been sitting in the other dugout over there.”

Tidwell struck out six in seven innings, allowing four runs on six hits to improve to 7-3.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.