Onward to Omaha: Tennessee blasts LSU to clinch first College World Series berth since 2005
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jake Rucker didn't hesitate. A 16-year drought had already been long enough.
In the top of the first inning on Sunday, the junior from Greenbrier smacked a towering two-run shot between the flags in left-center field for a 2-0 Tennessee lead.
He sent a similar home run over the right-field fence in the top of the third frame to put the Vols up 3-1 over LSU.
Tennessee (50-16) never looked back from there, as six home runs and a six-run fifth inning cushioned the Vols for a 15-6 win over LSU (38-25).
The win puts the Vols in the College World Series for the first time since 2005.
UT was the runner-up in Omaha in 1951, but has never won the title itself. Aside from '51 and 2005, the Vols have also reached the pinnacle of college baseball in 1995 and 2001.
"Tony's done a great job here," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who will enter retirement immediately. "(Tennessee) has always been a sleeping giant, and Tony has brought it back to life."
Vitello, meanwhile, said he "just wanted to get this thing to where we're proud of it."
Rucker, Crews form early-dueling wrecking crew
Connor Pavolony injected similar pride to the Vols on Saturday.
After Rucker's early homers, Tennessee's catcher put the Vols at a 5-2 advantage with a two-run bomb in the top of the fourth inning. Pavolony's homer came off LSU reliever Garrett Edwards, making Rucker the only Vol to score any runs off LSU starter Landon Marceaux.
For almost six innings, the same went for Tiger right-fielder Dylan Crews against UT starter Blade Tidwell.
Crews answered Rucker's two-run shot with a solo homer of his own in the bottom of the first inning, and he soloed again in the bottom of the third frame to answer Rucker for a second time.
Together, Rucker and Crews notched five runs off four hits in the first three innings.
Fifth-inning success burns LSU's bullpen
As one might think by the number of home runs, Rucker and Pavolony weren't the only Tennessee players to find success over the wall on Sunday.
Drew Gilbert hammered a solo bomb in the top of the fifth inning, and Jordan Beck crushed a three-run shot to left moments later.
Beck called for more noise from an already-raucous crowd as he crossed the plate, sending Lindsey Nelson Stadium into hysterics.
Liam Spence followed with an RBI groundout to score Pete Derkay, then Rucker came through again with an RBI single to score Pavolony for the 11-2 advantage.
The Tigers ultimately rotated through seven pitchers on Sunday, while Tennessee stuck with Tidwell before bringing in Camden Sewell.
Late bats overcome LSU homers, Sewell and Walsh save the day
After the aforementioned home runs from Crews, Tidwell cruised through the fourth and fifth innings.
But Tre' Morgan broke the ice again with a two-run shot in the sixth inning, and Brody Drost followed suit in the seventh to make the score 11-6.
Those responses proved no problem for Evan Russell, though. In the top of the eighth frame, the Lexington native rifled a two-run homer to put the Vols at a 13-6 lead.
A ninth-inning RBI double from Connor Pavolony extended UT's lead to 14-6, and a fielding error brought Pavolony across for the 15-6 advantage.
Then, Sewell took the bump once more. He struck out Gavin Dugas, allowed a single from Cade Doughty, and gave up a walk to Drew Bianco before Tony Vitello called on Redmond Walsh.
The Alcoa product got Drost swinging, then induced a line drive to Jake Rucker that sent the Vols into pandemonium.
A dog pile to remember, seeing 'what Omaha's about'
16 years have passed since the Vols' last trip to Omaha, and it showed.
After Rucker's snag, hats flew into the air. Players bear-hugged near the mound. And Tennessee's players dog-piled in celebration of a berth that was worth the wait.
But the season doesn't end here.
Mainieri said that Tennessee's pitching staff gives the Vols an opportunity "to win up there," while Vitello and Russell echoed Tennessee's mood shift after clinching the Super Regional.
"We know for a fact no one wants this to end with our heads down," Russell said. "We're ready to get back to work tomorrow and see what Omaha's about."
Added Vitello: "I think it's hard to put into words. There will be dancing in the streets tonight, but the next thing is the most important. And that's that we've got a chance to win the National Championship series."