Saturday night’s NCAA baseball regional marathon between top-seeded Clemson and second-seeded Tennessee was containing a little bit of everything for everybody, except for Hunter Ensley.
The center fielder and 2-hole hitter for the Volunteers was 0-for-6 with four strikeouts entering his at-bat in the 14th inning, when he connected on a double to the wall in right-center field that scored Maui Ahuna from first and gave Tennessee a 6-5 lead.
Seth Halvorsen made sure the lead held up, and the Vols had their biggest win of the season in just under five hours before 6,275 fans inside Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
“I’m just appreciative to be a part of that thing,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said in a news conference. “It was special for both sides. There are a lot of plays you could analyze, and they all made up one crazy game.”
Halvorsen threw 42 pitches, which followed 90 by starter Chase Dollander and 99 by reliever Chase Burns. Vitello said he tried to take Burns out of the game but that Burns gave him the “Heisman” stiff-arm.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that to a coach before,” Burns said. “It was a big opportunity, and I thought I could go back out there.”
Tennessee improved to 40-19 and needs one more victory to claim the Clemson Regional and advance to a super regional it would likely host for a third consecutive year. Clemson, the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, dropped to 44-18 and must face Charlotte at noon Sunday, with the winner of that elimination contest then facing Tennessee at 6 p.m.
The third-seeded 49ers stayed alive Saturday afternoon by dismissing fourth-seeded Lipscomb 9-2.
Clemson’s Caden Grice was electric on the mound and effective at the plate Saturday night, coming within one out — one strike, actually — of throwing a complete game. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior left-hander from Greer, South Carolina, was replaced by Ryan Ammons with runners on the corners, and Zane Denton launched a two-strike pitch to left field for a three-run home run that put Tennessee up 5-4.
“I was just trying to battle and keep the game alive,” Denton said. “Luckily I got a fastball that I could handle. I had swung through two fastballs already, so I kind of already knew what it looked like.”
The Tigers were down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth, but freshman Cam Cannarella doubled to right-center to score Blake Wright, who had led off with a double to right-center that just escaped Christian Scott’s glove.
Clemson briefly celebrated in the bottom of the 10th inning when the Tigers thought they had won on a fielder’s choice RBI, but replays showed the Vols had successfully turned a double play to send the game into the 11th. The Tigers would turn a 4-6-3 double play in the 13th to keep Tennessee from pulling ahead.
Grice entered Saturday with an 8-1 record and a 3.25 ERA in 13 starts. He also entered with a .302 batting average with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs.
In an anticipated pitching duel with Dollander, it would be Grice who got off to the stronger start, striking out the side in the first inning on 12 pitches. Yet it would also be Grice who gave up the first round, with Christian Moore launching a two-out, two-strike pitch to left field in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie.
Dollander ran into trouble in the fifth, when the Tigers got runners on the corners with nobody out and freshman leadoff hitter Cannarella connected on a three-run homer to right-center. Burns soon replaced Dollander but was greeted by Grice’s first-pitch double to left that scored Will Taylor to make it 4-1.
Following a scoreless sixth inning, Tennessee pulled within 4-2 on Denton’s two-out solo homer to center in the seventh. Grice threw seven pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth, but he would give up consecutive two-out singles to right by Moore and Blake Burke.
“We were saying in the dugout that we were eventually going to get to this guy,” Vitello said. “Not many have. It set the table for Zane to be in the position to do what he did.”
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.