March 18, 2009
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Displaying all sorts of mettle in the face of adversity with clutch two-out, seventh inning hits from Tiffany Huff, Jessica Spigner, Ashley Andrews and Kelly Grieve, No. 6 Tennessee (24-3) battled back from a five-run deficit to defeat a game Middle Tennessee squad, 6-5, on Wednesday night at the Lee Softball Stadium.
Spigner delivered the big blows for the UT offense as part of a 2-for-4, four-RBI performance by lacing a walk-off, two-run double with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and by blasting her team-best 11th home run of the season. With the big fly the Santa Clarita, Calif., native equaled the HR production of former Lady Vol All-American and school career home run record holder Tonya Callahan during her 2005 freshman season (82 games) and advanced within two HR's of equaling Carrie Swinford for the Tennessee freshman single-season home run mark set back in 1996 (13 HR's).
Huff raised her season batting average to a staggering .507 by going 2-for-3 with two runs scored and also extended her career-best hitting streak to 16 games. She knocked in her Southeastern Conference-high 48th run of the year, during the seventh frame, bringing UT back within a score at 5-4. The Saugus, Calif., native would eventually race all the way around from first on Spigner's double to register the game-winning tally.
Sophomore center fielder Kelly Grieve delivered three hits in four at-bats with a run and a RBI and started the decisive seventh-inning rally by hustling to beat out an infield single. Junior right fielder Nicole Kajitani delivered a 2-for-3 effort and scored Tennessee's initial run of the contest back in the fifth.
From the circle senior Danielle Pieroni improved to a perfect 4-0 on the season with 3.2 solid innings of relief work, allowing just one hit and striking out one. Freshman starter Cat Hosfield permitted five runs on five hits over 3.1 frames while striking out four Middle Tennessee hitters.
"I will take full responsibility for the team not being prepared to play tonight," Lady Vol co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. "We know that we are better than we showed in the early innings. Despite that, Karen (co-head coach Weekly) and I are very proud of the character and fight our squad demonstrated by coming back from a 5-0 deficit to win for the second time in two weeks. Middle Tennessee is a much improved ballclub and played flawless softball tonight."
Both teams left a runner stranded in the first inning as Hosfield and Middle Tennessee's Lindsey Vander Lugt pitched effectively in the opening frame, facing four batters each.
Neither squad could get much going offensively until the bottom of the third as Kajitani started the frame with a single into right center. The San Bernardino, Calif., native swiped second to reach scoring position with senior left fielder Lillian Hammond at the plate. Following a pop-up behind third that was nabbed on the run by Middle Tennessee shortstop Brittany Banania and a Grieve grounder to short, Andrews stepped in with a runner standing just 60 feet from paydirt. The Tumwater, Wash., native bounced a ball routinely back to the circle as the runner was left stranded.
MTSU center fielder Kelsey Dortch started the Blue Raider half of the fourth with a clean base knock into right field. On a 2-0 pitch the runner took off for second, reaching safely just ahead of a tag by Andrews. Hosfield eventually battled out of a 3-0 hole against designated player Corrie Abel to a full count. The hitter dropped a slow roller just wide of third and beat out an infield single as the Blue Raiders boasted occupants at the corners with no one yet retired. A fielding error on a ball off the bat of third baseman Martha Davis allowed Dortch the chance to tally the game's initial run. Right fielder Shelby Barrett continued the attack with a base hit into right center as MTSU loaded the bases with no outs. The score reached 2-0 on a passed ball, and with first base open, Jessica Ives was intentionally walked to re-load the bags and set up the force play at every base. Facing a lot of heat with the bases juiced, Hosfield struck out catcher Laurie Anna Cooley for the first out. Unfortunately for the Big Orange, Blue Raider second baseman Tobie Joy launched a double into the right center field gap as all three base runners came around to score, making it 5-0, MTSU. Pieroni was summoned into the contest in relief and immediately settled things down by inducing consecutive fly outs from Caitlin Mclure and Banania to finally end the inning.
Looking for a rally to begin chipping away at the deficit, Huff opened the bottom half of the fourth with a walk. A Spigner ground ball to short started a 6-4-3 double play, however, as the bases were quickly cleared of Lady Vols. That ended any threat as Webb lined sharply to Joy at second with the fielder squeezing the sphere for out number three.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth, Kajitani and Hammond gave UT's offense some much-needed life by posting consecutive singles off Vander Lugt. Grieve fell behind in the count 1-2 before bouncing a sharp shot back up the middle, scoring Kajitani and leaving Tennessee with speedsters at second and third, trailing 5-1. Surprise pinch hitter Ashton Ward entered the contest and battled to a full count before bouncing to short. MTSU's Banania corralled the orb and tossed across the diamond, just retiring Ward by a step to leave the duo stranded.
Huff led-off the bottom of the sixth by blasting a Vander Lugt offering through the left side of the infield for a single. Spigner followed with a towering two-run home run to left center that literally landed on the top of the scoreboard, cutting the gap further to 5-3. Following a liner to short from Webb for the initial out of the inning, freshman designated player Shelby Burchell coerced a walk. Lapicki grounded to short and was gunned down at first. Redshirt sophomore pinch runner Natalee Weissinger got doubled up off second, perhaps thinking the ball had been caught on a line drive, for an inning-ending double play.
Pieroni did her job by retiring the Blue Raiders in order in the seventh, setting the stage for potential last chance heroics in regulation for the Lady Vol offense.
The Big Orange wouldn't disappoint its fans in attendance despite Kajitani's grounding out to short and Hammond's lining sharply to third, bringing UT within an out of defeat. Grieve started the two-out rally by hustling to beat out an infield single to first. Andrews worked the count to 2-1 before singling just over Banania's glove at short and into left field. Tennessee's RBI-leader Huff stepped into the box and, with two strikes, delivered a clutch RBI single to center as Grieve scored, making it 5-4. With runners occupying first and second, Spigner delivered again with a low liner just over the third base bag and down into the corner. Andrews scored easily to tie the contest with Huff rounding third just behind her teammate. On the throw to the plate, MTSU catcher Laurie Anna Cooley collided with the runner while attempting to keep her from scoring. Huff registered the game-winner, however, as UT completed its second five-run comeback triumph of 2009 (Oklahoma, 6-5 win in 8 inn.).
A huge conference weekend awaits No. 6 Tennessee in Gainesville, Fla., over March 21-22 as the Lady Vols will play a three-game series against No. 1 Florida. First pitch for Saturday's doubleheader is set for 1 p.m. ET with the opener to be broadcast live on SUN Sports. The Sports Animal (AM 990, 99.1 & 99.3 FM) is also slated to radio broadcast all three contests in the series with Chip Kain on the call. Live stats will be available through utladyvols.com via Gametracker.