Following a lengthy layoff, the Diamond Dogs returned to action on Friday night for the opening outing of a three-game SEC set against Tennessee. The Big Orange arrived in Athens sporting an 8-13 conference ledger that was more impressive than it sounded; the visiting Vols stumbled to an 0-7 league start before winning eight of their next fourteen heading into their series with the Classic City Canines. The Tennesseans maintained their late-season momentum with a 4-1 win in a game that featured two solid pitching performances.
Justin Grimm surrendered a one-out single to Josh Liles in the top of the first frame before convincing the next two Volunteer batters to chase strike three. Peter Verdin answered with a one-out single in the home half of the canto, and, after the Bulldog right fielder swiped second, Zach Cone brought him home with a two-out double to give the Red and Black the lead.
That advantage was short-lived. In the visitors’ half of the second stanza, Blake Forsythe led off with a double and Charley Thurber put runners at the corners with a base hit. An error by Todd Hankins enabled Matt Duffy to reach base and Forsythe to score, then Cody Stubbs hit into the fielder’s choice that plated Thurber. A pair of strikeouts prevented additional damage from being done.
Georgia evened the hits at four per side in the bottom of the frame when consecutive two-out base hits by Chase Davidson and Hankins, followed by a hit batsman, put three Bulldogs aboard for Verdin, who grounded out to short.
After Grimm retired the side in sequence in the top of the third canto, Tennessee hurler Stephen McCray returned the favor by setting down the Georgians in order in the lower half of the inning. One-out singles by Duffy and Stubbs in the top of the fourth frame came to naught when the lead runner was cut down at home and Khayyan Norfork swung at strike three. The Diamond Dogs went three up and three down in the bottom of the stanza.
Although no Tennessean reached base in the upper half of the fifth canto, Johnathan Taylor and Verdin drew back-to-back one-out walks in the bottom of the inning. The next two Diamond Dogs registered outs to strand them. The Volunteers did not demonstrate a similar inability to push runs across the plate in the visitors’ half of the sixth stanza.
Forsythe led off with a double. Thurber brought him home with another double in the next at-bat. Duffy walked, and, after Stubbs struck out, a double steal and a Christian Glisson error allowed another run to score. The next two Tennessee hitters grounded out to send the contest to the bottom of the frame with the visitors leading 4-1 in runs and 8-4 in hits.
The Red and Black squandered an opportunity to respond in their turn at the plate. An error allowed Kyle Farmer to reach base to open the inning, and a one-out Brett DeLoach single sent the Georgia shortstop to third, but the next two Bulldog batters went down swinging. Grimm struck out the first three Volunteers he faced in the upper half of the seventh canto, but a wild pitch allowed the last of these to reach base safely, so the Athenian hurler proceeded to strike out the fourth batter, too.
Once the Classic City Canines had gone quietly on a flyout and a pair of groundouts in the bottom of the stanza, Justin Earls took over on the mound. He came on in relief of Grimm, who had lasted seven innings in which he fanned eleven and walked one to turn in an eight-hit, four-run performance. The new Georgia pitcher promptly plunked Chris Fritts but made up for it by extracting a double-play grounder from Duffy. The next batter registered a flyout.
The Diamond Dogs went three up and three down in the home half of the eighth frame, but Norfork notched a one-out single and stole two bases in the top of the ninth canto before being put out at home when Liles reached on a fielder’s choice. A P.J. Polk groundout brought the Bulldogs back up to bat trailing by three.
Zach Taylor dropped a one-out base hit into center field to bring the potential tying run into the on-deck circle, but the next two Georgia batters carded outs to squander a serviceable pitching performance by the Justins Grimm and Earls. Tennessee’s Stephen McCray went the distance to improve to 5-3, surrendering six hits and two walks but striking out eight and conceding only one earned run. Leadoff hitter Johnathan Taylor, cleanup hitter Zach Cone, and designated hitter Chase Davidson combined to go two for ten, and McCray permitted just two total hits in the final seven stanzas after giving up two apiece in each of the initial couple of cantos.
Tennessee demonstrated mastery on the mound, though not at the plate. The Volunteers stranded eight, recorded only one hit with two outs against them, failed to produce a pinch hit, and were four for 19 with runners aboard. While the Big Orange failed to overpower a Georgia pitching staff that often boosts opposing batters’ averages, the Tennesseans’ senior starter took advantage of the youngest lineup in the league. The Red and Black left nine men on base, batted just three for thirteen with teammates aboard, and were shut out in eight innings while their pitching staff held the visitors scoreless in seven stanzas.