Georgia Tech falls short against Tennessee in NCAA regional final

Georgia Tech pitcher Zach Maxwell pitched six innings for the Yellow Jackets in the team's 9-6 loss to Tennessee in an NCAA regional championship June 5, 2022 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Georgia Tech Athletics/Gage Jenkins)

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Georgia Tech pitcher Zach Maxwell pitched six innings for the Yellow Jackets in the team's 9-6 loss to Tennessee in an NCAA regional championship June 5, 2022 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Georgia Tech Athletics/Gage Jenkins)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Three outs from the biggest win of the season, a familiar agony befell Georgia Tech.

Trying to pull off an upset of overall No. 1 seed Tennessee Sunday night to force a Monday winner-take-all game for the NCAA baseball regional championship, the Yellow Jackets let go of a two-run lead going into the seventh inning and a one-run lead going into the ninth and lost 9-6. The loss, which followed an elimination-game win over Campbell earlier in the day at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, was Tech’s second in the double-elimination regional and ended its season yet again at the regional round. The Jackets lost at the regional round for the 11th consecutive appearance, 10 times as the regional runner-up.

“Eighteen innings (in one day) is a tough challenge for anybody, and it literally went down kind of to the last pitch of the game with the game on the line, and just couldn’t quite make enough pitches and maybe get enough hits in the end against an outstanding team,” Tech coach Danny Hall said.

Tennessee, the favorite to win the national championship, rallied with six runs in the top of the ninth (the Volunteers were playing as the visiting team) to overcome a 4-3 deficit at the start of the inning and delight a raucous crowd of 4,213. Tennessee advances to the super-regional round, where it will be at home next weekend against Notre Dame, winner of the regional hosted by Georgia Southern.

Tech (36-24) took a 4-0 lead through four innings thanks to two runs gifted to the Jackets by a two-out throwing error by Tennessee shortstop Cortland Lawson that allowed Colin Hall and Jadyn Jackson to score in the bottom of the third. That was followed by a two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth by Stephen Reid off starter Drew Beam, the SEC’s freshman of the year.

Hall sent reliever Zach Maxwell out for his first start since March, and the flamethrower delivered his finest performance of the season. Relying on a fastball that reached 100 miles per hour and a wickedly bending slider, Maxwell limited the nation’s leader in home runs per game and slugging percentage to two runs through six innings, firing a career-high 113 pitches and tying his career high with 11 strikeouts.

“He couldn’t have pitched any better than he pitched against an outstanding hitting team,” Hall said.

Said Maxwell, who had to pitch through an unusual cramp in his left (non-throwing) hand, “I felt good. I didn’t know I’d thrown that many pitches until they told me. Honestly, it didn’t feel like that much.”

But Tennessee (56-7) scored one off reliever Dawson Brown in the seventh to cut the lead to 4-3 before breaking through in the top of the ninth. The first two batters reached base, one via a force-out at second that was overruled by video replay and judged safe.

“You hope you get an out on that, and didn’t,” Hall said.

The third batter, Jordan Beck, a top-25 draft prospect, seared a line drive to center that centerfielder Colin Hall first came in on before it went over his head to drive in a run and tie the game. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and then Brown hit Trey Lipscomb with a pitch to force in a run and give the Volunteers a 5-4 lead. Tennessee scored four more times, with Logan McGuire and Camron Hill recording the second and third outs in relief of Brown. Hall said he didn’t consider replacing Brown going into the ninth, even though he was facing Tennessee’s order for the second time.

“It was just more we were counting on (Brown) sinking the ball and (Tennessee) hitting the ball in the ground,” Hall said. “I think other than Beck, they were all ground-ball hits.”

Down 9-4 and facing the end of the season, the Jackets answered with two runs in the bottom of the ninth and had the game-winning run at the plate with Colin Hall batting with the bases loaded and two out. It was potentially a moment for the coach’s son to extend his career and amend for his misplay in the field on Beck’s line-drive double. But Hall took a 3-2 pitch that appeared high for a called third strike, ending the game and, in the process, his Jackets career.

“I’d have liked to have seen him run down that ball down that Beck hit,” Danny Hall said. “Not an easy play, and I’ll just say it like that. Then you would have liked to have seen him not strike out, but it happens. I’d say it like this, that he’s had a great career.”

The Jackets had much to rue in the near-miss loss. In the fourth (after Reid’s home run), fifth and seventh innings, Tech had two runners on and one or no outs and didn’t score any runs, thwarted by Tennessee reliever Will Mabrey, who threw 3 2/3 innings without giving up a run.

Asked if he felt during the game that the missed opportunities would come back to haunt Tech, Hall replied, “maybe a little bit, but maybe the hero of the game for them was Will Mabrey.”

In the top of the fifth, Jenkins couldn’t field a high-bouncing grounder at first, opening the door for Tennessee to score its first two runs of the game. In the bottom of the fifth, waved around by third-base coach James Ramsey, Andrew Jenkins was easily thrown out at home trying to score on a misplayed grounder up the middle, nabbed by a well-executed throw by second baseman Jorel Ortega. Hall’s misplay of Beck’s line drive in the ninth inning was costly. A throwing error by left fielder Tres Gonzalez later in the inning led to Tennessee’s final run.

“They’re hard to beat, and they’re good, and so if you don’t just do everything pretty crisp, you’ve got a chance to get beat, and they did it,” Hall said.

Ending the season with a loss dotted with mistakes and missed opportunities was perhaps fitting for this team, which had been powered by a historically prolific offense but was weak in pitching and defense, reflected in the team being ranked 228th in Division I in ERA going into the game at 6.61. Sunday night’s loss was an agonizing but perhaps unsurprising conclusion to the season.

The Jackets were unable to achieve more despite catcher Kevin Parada breaking the school’s 32-year-old single-season record for home runs, second baseman Chandler Simpson likely winning the Division I batting crown at .433 and Jenkins joining those Parada in earning All-America honors. All three players, likely played their final game for Tech Sunday night, along with Maxwell and perhaps others, as the draft could beckon all of them.

It was an ideal setting for a game. Tech took the field just after 7 p.m., about an hour and a half after its 16-5 win in the losers bracket over Campbell, fueled by career-defining performances by pitcher Josiah Siegel (career-long 6 1/3 innings of one-run relief) and Simpson (5-for-6 with four runs scored). The sun was setting in east Tennessee, enveloping the diamond in a warm glow under blue skies. Beyond the outfield, trees covered a mountainous bluff on the opposite bank of the Tennessee River. The stands were packed with Volunteers fans.

The Jackets were seeking their first super-regional berth since 2006 at the expense of a team favored to win the national championship. The night ended almost four hours later, the Volunteers celebrating with their fans and the Jackets again left to ponder what could have been.

“One different pitch, one different play, and we’re winning that ballgame and we play (Monday),” Parada said. “But it didn’t happen, and it is what it is.”