Tennessee carried a one-run lead over Texas A&M going into the eighth inning Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
There was reason for tempered enthusiasm.
At the same time, about 600 miles away in Columbia, Mo., Kentucky led Missouri 3-1 early in that outing.
All was going well for the Vols. A Kentucky win over Missouri could keep UT’s SEC tournament hopes alive.
Turned out none of that mattered.
In an ending UT coach Dave Serrano described as “the theme of 51 games,” Texas A&M drew the Vols into a 4-all tie in the eighth, posted four runs in the ninth and high-fived its way to an 8-4 win.
Game No. 52, a regular-season finale on Saturday against the Aggies (30-24, 13-15 SEC), is merely a formality. For the sixth straight year, Tennessee (21-30, 7-20) won’t be going to the SEC tournament.
“It was a back breaker and we’ve had to deal with a lot of back breakers,” Serrano said of Friday’s defeat.
This one was ultimately a moot point. Missouri rallied to beat Kentucky 4-3 and secured the final spot in the 12-team SEC tournament.
Relief pitcher Drake Owenby (2-1) took Friday’s loss for UT. The freshman surrendered two hits, two walks and three runs, all earned, after replacing starter Nick Williams.
Williams, a junior from Farragut High School, was
the game’s lone bright spot for UT.
After giving up two early runs, including a second-inning home run off the left-field foul pole by Troy Stein, Williams locked into form. The junior retired 12 of 13 batters in the fourth through seventh innings.
“Looking over at the dugout, seeing some of the seniors, I knew we needed this one,” said Williams, who allowed four earned runs on five hits and posted a career-high 10 strikeouts. “It was a big game for us.”
The Vols entered the eighth leading 3-2, thanks to three early RBIs by Christin Stewart. With Williams’ pitch count sitting at 99, the right-hander came back out to face the bottom of the Aggies’ lineup.
A bloop single to left by No. 8 hitter Krey Bratsen delivered pangs of déjà vu. Blowing late leads is nothing new for these Vols.
Two batters later, Mikey Reynolds lofted a pitch into right field.
“I thought it was just a normal fly ball,” Williams said.
Then it carried. And carried. Caroming high off the outfield wall, the routine fly turned into a game-changing RBI triple.
Williams walked the next batter, ending his night. Cole Lankford, the first batter facing Owenby, brought Bratsen home with an RBI single.
An RBI single by UT junior Taylor Smart tied the game 4-4 in the eighth. It merely served as the wick for an implosion.
Following a leadoff walk, the Aggies loaded the bases with one out in the ninth. Owenby was pulled in favor of freshman Trevor Bettencourt, who was subsequently tagged with three straight RBI singles leading to four runs.
“The game continues to repeat itself over and over and continues to give us opportunities to be successful and we’re just not,” Serrano said.
The Vols loaded the bases against reliever Jason Jester (3-3) in the ninth, but this hasn’t been a year for fairy-tale finishes. The game ended on a ground out by Scott Price.
“I’d like to sit here and say that with one game left we’re just a turn of the screwdriver away from being the kind of program that I envision,” Serrano said. “But we’re farther away than that. And that is very, very disappointing.”