TAMPA, Fla. – Playing four games in less than 24 hours finally caught up to No. 4 Tennessee’s (8-1) pitching staff on Sunday afternoon. In all the Big Orange hurlers issued nine walks, uncorked a wild pitch and hit a batter with the bases loaded, all while giving up just three total hits in a 4-1 defeat to host USF (6-2) at the USF Best Western Tournament in Tampa, Fla.
Lady Vol senior pitcher Megan Rhodes started the contest in the circle and worked the opening three innings before re-entering in the fifth to finish out the match-up. She worked 5.1 total innings, allowing two runs on three hits with six walks and four K’s. Freshman Ashton Ward took the hard-luck defeat in relief to drop to 5-1 on the season after permitting a pair of unearned runs on no hits to go along with three walks and a strikeout over 1.2 frames.
Offensively, Tennessee managed a season-low, four-hit output against the combined efforts of USF pitchers Courtney Mosch and Cristi Ecks. Junior left fielder Lillian Hammond, freshman designated player Jen Lapicki and senior shortstop Kenora Posey each singled, while sophomore center fielder Anita Manuma recorded a double during a fifth inning rally attempt. UT left six base runners stranded in the match-up.
“Anytime a team has to play four games in 22 hours it’s a tough challenge, especially for a team as young as ours,” Lady Vol co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. “Giving up nine walks against a tough USF team was, in this instance, the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’ll learn from this, regroup and go forward with the rest of our season.”
South Florida threatened immediately against Rhodes to open the contest as second baseman Britta Giddens walked, and shortstop Tara Toscano singled through the left side to put two Bulls on with no outs in the top of the first. Rhodes responded to the challenge by striking out right fielder Kit Dunbar, inducing a fly out to left from first baseman JoJo Medina and a ground out off the bat of catcher Cat Olnick to escape the inning unscathed.
Hammond attempted to get something going leading off the Big Orange half of the first by beating out an infield single to short. Unfortunately, a pair of groundouts to third by senior shortstop Kenora Posey and senior catcher Shannon Doepking and a rare punch out of senior third baseman Tonya Callahan ended the frame.
After UT left another runner stranded in the bottom of the second, USF’s offense threatened again in the top of the third. Left fielder Kelly McCarver opened the inning by drawing a walk against Rhodes and was soon joined on the base paths by Toscano via a base-on-balls. With two down in the frame, co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly made the decision to intentionally walk the potentially dangerous Medina, and the move paid off. With the bags packed, Olnick flew out harmlessly to left field, where Hammond squeezed the orb, for out number three.
Ward entered the contest in relief of Rhodes to christen the top of the fourth and settled things down immediately by inducing consecutive ground outs from South Florida pitcher Mosch, third baseman Alison Savarese and center fielder Aya Nakajima.
With Tennessee’s offense struggling to get anything going against Mosch, the Bulls finally broke in front in the top of the fifth. A lead-off walk issued by Ward to McCarver started things off badly for UT. An error on a bunt put two Bulls aboard with still none retired. A strikeout of Toscano and a ground out by Dunbar moved the Lady Vols closer to escaping the jam. The Weeklys’ made the move, once again, to intentionally walk Medina to load the bags. This time it didn’t pay dividends as Ward uncorked a wild pitch, under the feet of a leaping Olnick in the batter’s box, to bring across a run for a 1-0 USF advantage. Olnick walked to re-load the bags with two down. That’s when things began to get strange as the umps ruled that the Lady Vol coaching staff had made a second visit to the circle during the inning against rule forcing a required pitching change. UT made the move to bring back in the original starter Megan Rhodes. The Nashville, Tenn., native immediately struck Mosch with a pitch forcing in another run as USF grabbed a 2-0 advantage. Savarese popped up on the infield to end the inning but not before two vital tallies had crossed the dish.
The difficult inning seemed to grant Tennessee’s offense life as sophomore right fielder Erinn Webb christened the bottom of the fifth frame with a lead-off walk. Manuma followed with a long double off the wall that dropped just inside the chalk down the right field line to place runners at second and third with no one retired. Freshman second baseman Chandra Mogan was walked by USF’s Mosch to load the bases for Hammond. She lifted a short fly to left but not deep enough, however, to score Webb from third. Pinch hitter Danielle Pieroni was summoned in to pinch hit for Posey, but went down on a K for a big second out. South Florida made the move to the bullpen to bring in junior hurler Ecks in a potential save situation to face Callahan. Tennessee’s power hitter battled to draw a bases loaded walk, forcing in a run to cut the UT deficit to 2-1 with Doepking stepping into the box. After battling out of a 0-2 hole to 2-2, Doepking swung at a tough outside pitch to leave the bases juiced.
Free passes continue to plague the Big Orange pitching staff opening the top of the sixth as Rhodes issued walks to Nakajima and McCarver. USF made the Lady Vols pay once again as Giddens doubled over Hammond in left and off the wall to score Nakajima and advance runners up to second and third with still none retired. Pinch hitter Kendall Arnold struck out to record the first retirement. Dunbar bounced a ball back to the circle and managed to beat a throw from Rhodes to first allowing another tally to score and improving the count to 4-1 USF. Thankfully, the damage was further minimized on a solid defensive play by Huff at first. She nabbed a weak pop-up from Medina, turned and stepped on the first base bag to double up the runner and conclude the frame.
Down to their last six outs, the Orange & White were retired one-two-three in both the bottom of the sixth and seventh against USF’s Ecks to conclude the 4-1 defeat.
No. 4 Tennessee closes out its stay at the USF Best Western Tournament on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. versus Florida A&M. Live stats will be available through www.utladyvols.com, and periodic updates will be recorded on the Lady Vol Hotline (865-974-8700, box #6).