The depth of Southeastern Conference baseball was on full display Thursday when two teams with top-10 national rankings — No. 4 Tennessee and No. 8 Mississippi State — collided in the first elimination game of the league tournament's double-elimination format.
Though the Bulldogs brought far more tradition to the matchup at Hoover Met near Birmingham, Alabama, the Volunteers brought the arms and bats and waltzed to a 12-2 whipping that did not reach the ninth inning due to the SEC tournament's 10-run mercy rule. The win was the first for Tennessee in the league tournament since 2007, halting a stretch of seven consecutive setbacks that was extended with Wednesday's wacky 3-2 loss to Alabama in 11 innings.
"They're all big wins," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said after his Vols improved to 43-15. "There isn't any win that's not big, but that might have been our best or — at the very least — one of our best wins of the year when you take in all the circumstances out there on the table.
"We didn't have any magic speech or anything like that. They just like to compete, and they kind of seem to like the bounce-back thing more than anything."
Tennessee's triumph coupled with Alabama's 7-2 loss to Florida on Thursday night secured a second tourney encounter between the Vols and Crimson Tide. The latest chapter was originally scheduled to take place Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern, but it has been moved up to an 11 a.m. start due to impending weather concerns.
The Vols took control Thursday in the second inning, when Bulldogs starter Christian MacLeod allowed a walk and hit a batter before surrendering a three-run home run to right-center field by Pete Derkay. Liam Spence added an RBI single later in the second to extend the advantage to 4-0.
Jordan Beck's solo homer in the fourth put Tennessee up 5-1, and that was more than enough to complement the pitching of Chad Dallas, who improved to 10-1 this season by allowing six hits and one run in nearly seven innings. The top two hitters in Tennessee's lineup, Spence and Max Ferguson, combined to go 6-of-9 with five RBIs.
Mississippi State (40-15) was outscored 25-3 in its two SEC tournament games, which transpired in just 15 innings.