An error on a popped-up bunt allowed Tennessee to score the go-ahead run in the ninth inning and junior Nick Blount came on to record his seventh save in seven consecutive games as the Volunteers edged No. 10 South Carolina, 5-4, in front of a sold-out crowd of 8,242 at Carolina Stadium on Friday night.
Tennessee improves to 20-10 overall and 6-4 in Southeastern Conference play, while the Gamecocks fall to 21-9 on the year and 3-7 in league action. For the Vols, it is the fastest they have reached the 20-win mark since going 20-8 to start the 2005 season, which culminated in an appearance in the College World Series.
With the score deadlocked at 4-4 in the top of the ninth after three lead changes, the Big Orange put runners on the corners with one out after back-to-back singles by Zach Osborne and Will Maddox. With the count at 0-2 to Zach Luther following two unsuccessful bunt attempts, he was able to get the bat on the ball but popped the two-strike bunt back to the mound. Osborne was caught off third, but the throw to double him up by SC pitcher Matt Price sailed into left field, allowing the eventual game-winning run to score.
"It's baseball," Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano said. "I don't think anyone out there can figure out this game, I can't figure it out. That's why we continue to tell our players to play hard. Play hard and try to win the next pitch because if you try to analyze why this game does certain things, you are going to go crazy with it."
Blount then came on to retire all three batters he faced, sitting down the heart of the Gamecock order, with the last out traveling all the way to the warning track in dead center, to pick up his eighth save of the season and seven in seven consecutive games.
The win marked UT's first in Carolina Stadium and first over South Carolina since 2009.
Junior Drew Steckenrider (3-2) launched his fifth home run of the season and struck out the side twice in his 2.1 innings of work to pick up the win after 5.2 strong innings by South Carolina native and UT starter Zack Godley. Both pitchers struck out six in the contest.
The Vols touched up South Carolina starter Michael Roth for three runs on six hits, three of which went for extra bases. He had allowed just three extra-base hits all season entering the contest. It was Price (3-3) that suffered the loss, however, yielding two runs, one earned, in 2.2 innings.
"(Michael Roth and Matt Price are) two guys that I have a lot of respect for, that I have watched on TV the last few years and I am very proud of our guys for being able to overcome those two guys and overcome ourselves," Serrano said. "We kind of put ourselves in that situation a little bit and we kind of overcame ourselves which is what we have been doing lately, but I am very proud of how we overcame Roth and Price, two good quality pitchers in college baseball."
The Vols struck first, using doubles by Ethan Bennett and Maddox to bring in the first run of the game. Roth entered the contest having allowed just three extra-base hits all season before the two at-bats by the UT underclassmen.
The Gamecocks threatened to get on the board in the bottom of the fourth, putting together the makings of a two-out rally with a double high off the wall and back-to-back walks to load the bases. Godley made quick work of T.J. Costen though, striking him out on three straight pitches to end the frame.
South Carolina finally got on the board in the bottom of the fifth, striking for a pair of unearned runs to take a 2-1 lead.
It wouldn't last long though, as Steckenrider launched a mammoth bomb into the left-field bleachers with one on to give it right back to Tennessee in the top of the sixth. It was his team-leading fifth of the season and the first allowed by Roth this season.
The back-and-forth affair continued in the home half of the frame, however, as Christian Walker laced a two-out, bases-loaded single to center to bring home two runs and put South Carolina back on top, 4-3.
Following a scoreless seventh, the Vols answered right back in the eighth. Luther led off the frame with a first-pitch double to left-center and Steckenrider followed with a walk. Parker Wormsley, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner earlier in the contest, was unsuccessful on his first two bunt attempts, but laid a perfect one down with two strikes to move both runners up 90 feet. That allowed a groundout to short by Chris Fritts to bring in the tying run and set up the dramatic ninth-inning finish.
Tennessee will go for the series win at 8 p.m. on Saturday night in a contest set to air on ESPNU. Carter Blackburn and former LSU star Ben McDonald will be on the call, while UT senior southpaw T.J. Thornton (0-0, 5.40) will square off with Gamecock lefty Jordan Montgomery (2-0, 3.27) on the mound.