For Tennessee baseball, this stunning super regional exit will be an open wound | Estes

Gentry Estes
Knoxville News Sentinel

KNOXVILLE — It was Vol fun and games until the seventh inning.

Top-seeded, heavily favored Tennessee had been pushed hard by Notre Dame in this weekend’s NCAA super regional. The Vols had sweated for three days, but they could finally see the finish line, ahead by two runs in the deciding Game 3.

Omaha beckoned.

Only seven outs remained after months of anticipation and staring at the five years stenciled into the outfield wall at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, expecting deep down that “2022” ultimately would be added to that list of Tennessee's previous College World Series teams. Because none had been as good as this one. Few teams in college baseball history had been, really. 

The inevitable neared. Now to just cross the T’s and dot the I’s and …

… close your eyes, Vols fans.

This is gonna hurt.

Well, you know. You saw it.

ANALYSIS:Tennessee baseball did extraordinary things. Its legacy is an incomplete journey.

ADAMS:Notre Dame baseball, not Tennessee Vols, was No. 1 when it mattered most

REACTIONS:How social media reacted to Tennessee baseball's season-ending loss: By piling dirt on the Vols

The first of the back-to-back shots that propelled Notre Dame to a stunning 7-3 victory over Tennessee wouldn’t have been out of many ballparks. David LaManna had one previous home run this season, but when it mattered most, he sliced a two-run homer over the short fence in right field to tie the score with two outs.

The next batter, Jack Brannigan, got all of Tennessee starter Chase Burns’ pitch, hammering it over the porches in left field. And everything changed. The stadium tensed, as did the Vols. 

The Fighting Irish led 4-3. They added three more in the eighth inning.

Just like that, the mighty 2022 Vols were done. They are a confirmed national power on the upswing. They’ll take with them a wonderful season. an SEC Tournament title, a stellar 57-9 record – and a truckload of hopes and expectations that’ll go unfulfilled.

“They say time heals all wounds,” Vols coach Tony Vitello said. “I don't know who 'they' are, because sometimes it takes a long time.”

This will take a long time.

It'll be little consolation to the Vols that they didn’t give away this series. The veteran Fighting Irish were up for this kind of challenge. They were resilient. They played like champions.

To call this series in Knoxville an upset, though, would be a gigantic understatement. It was a shockingly premature end for these Vols.

In college baseball this season, there has been Tennessee and everyone else. It definitely wasn’t supposed to end this soon. Vitello’s club, while widely disliked for its attitude and celebrations and in-game antics, was beloved by Vol Nation for its flair and its dominance. This fanbase has waited a long time for a big winner like this.

The Vols were such massive favorites entering the NCAA Tournament that the discussion had become them against the field for the national championship. Reaching Omaha seemed all but certain after they cruised unbeaten to the SEC title in Hoover.

And yet, nothing has seemed easy since then. Some uncustomary wobbles began to show in the opening regionals. The starting pitching, lights-out all season, started to turn shaky. Tennessee had to overcome early deficits to beat Campbell and Georgia Tech.

"Ask any team in the country that gets there (to Omaha)," Vitello said. "... It is not automatic."

Tennessee kept winning, though, until Notre Dame won 8-6 in Friday’s Game 1, which will be remembered mostly for the fifth-inning ejection of Vols cleanup hitter Drew Gilbert, who was suspended for Game 2.

Without Gilbert on Saturday, Tennessee faced elimination and swatted it away with four home runs in a 12-4 victory. All seemed right again with the Vols entering Sunday.

The Tennessee dugout after their loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA baseball Super Regional championship game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, June 12, 2022.

Burns, a freshman from Gallatin, was the right choice to start Game 3. He pitched well for 6⅔ innings, but Vitello erred in leaving him in there after LaManna’s two-out home run, and Brannigan took advantage.

A glum Vitello opened his postgame press conference by criticizing himself for – in his words – failing to put his players in position to succeed for “the last three innings.”

“That’ll stick with me,” Vitello said.

From there, with the game slipping away, the pressure of being the top seed finally appeared to weigh on the Vols, who couldn’t muster a desperate comeback against clutch lefty Jack Findlay, who closed out Friday’s win and then blanked the Vols in the final five innings Sunday.

It ended with a crisp double play from Notre Dame’s stellar defense.

“Really hard to believe it’s over,” said UT's Luc Lipcius, who hit three home runs the past two games.

RECORD REPEAT:Luc Lipcius sets Tennessee baseball career home run record — again

As the Fighting Irish celebrated, Tennessee’s players watched from the dugout in disbelief.

They weren’t the only ones.

The best team in college baseball wasn’t the best in its own stadium this weekend. For Vol Nation, that’s going to be tough to swallow – and tougher to digest.

Reach sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.