For six innings on Sunday, it looked as if University of Tennessee freshman Chase Burns was going to pitch the Volunteers (57-9) into the College World Series for the second consecutive year.
Seemingly on cruise control, the former Beech High School star allowed just one run on two hits against Notre Dame (40-15) until he took the mound in the top of the seventh inning. But as his pitch count climbed toward triple digits, Burns unraveled in the seventh inning and Vols head coach Tony Vitello sat idly by as UT’s lead slipped away.
“The job of the coach is once the game starts, put your guys in a good position to succeed – and I didn’t do that,” Vitello said. “This is a job that requires big-boy decisions. They come at high stakes when you play in our league, or you get into the postseason.”
With two out and Carter Putz on second, Burns gave up a two-run homer to David LaManna that tied the game 3-3. Still, Vitello left Burns on the mound to work through it. They both watched UT’s lead dissipate the very next batter with Jack Brannigan launched a solo home run to left center that pushed Notre Dame ahead 4-3 and ended Burns night.
“Just the fact he had gotten their best hitter [Jack Zyska] out,” Vitello said of his decision to leave Burns in the game. “I mean, Jack is … Jack's a special kid. and you can see that. He’s pretty damn annoying if you're on the other side, but he's that for a reason. And Burns gets him out, so now we're one out away. …You know, you see the foul home run against [Brannigan], maybe if you make the pitching change in the middle of that at-bat would have been wise.”
Burns’ last 2/3 innings (3 hits, 3 runs, 2 HRs) looked drastically different than his first six (2 hits, 1 run, 5 Ks).
But Vitello remained steadfast in his belief that Burns, who was still throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s, was more than capable of getting the final out, regardless of conceding a two-run homer.
“I think Chase wanted the ball,” Vitello continued. “He certainly took ownership of the game. We felt good about the matchup against LaManna, but should have taken him out there before, in particular after the foul home run.
“…But Chase wasn't on the mat. I mean, I think it was 97 on the radar gun or something like that, and the pitch before was certainly a ball, but it was a pretty crisp 0-2 pitch that, you know, you'd like to see the guy swing and miss, or if it's a little closer to the plate, maybe you get a borderline strike call.”
Unfortunately for UT, it had no answer for Notre Dame’s Jack Findlay, who threw five shutout innings in relief, allowing a single hit and striking out four to allow the Irish to climb back from their early 3-0 hole.
The Vols had allowed seven or more runs five times through their first 63 games. Notre Dame scored seven runs or more against UT twice in a three-day span.
Despite setting program records for wins and home runs, claiming the school’s first SEC regular season and tournament titles in 27 years, and having not lost a game all season when leading after six innings, Tennessee, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, squandered perhaps its best chance at a national championship.
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