Tennessee baseball shows heart, elevates heart rates, forces Game 3 for the national title

Tennessee Volunteers pitcher Nate Snead (7) pitches against the Texas A&M Aggies during the ninth inning Sunday at Charles Schwab Field Omaha in Omaha, Neb. (Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports)

OMAHA, Neb. — The Tennessee baseball team that will play for a national championship on the last possible day of the season cites closeness often, as do most successful teams, but Vols parents provide backing beyond the results with their pregame habits.

Just about every player on the roster is represented by mothers, fathers, siblings and extended family at an enormous tailgate before each game in Omaha. It’s put on by super fans Ray Bales and Jay and Andrea Beedle — the Beedles own 865 Bomb Squad Apparel LLC and have name, image and likeness deals with several players — and it’s not just an Omaha thing. It’s an every-game thing. Home and road. All season.

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They take a moment to pray for their sons at each gathering. They eat and drink. They play cornhole. They trade funny stories and, in some cases, funny pictures, such as one shared Saturday with The Athletic of Christy Behnke’s Apple watch displaying a heart rate of 134. It was from earlier in the season when son Andrew was on the mound for the Vols, and as a consistent standing rate — which normally ranges between 60 and 100 — it would indicate a serious heart condition.

But that’s sports parenting. That’s pitcher parenting, which might be the most consistent source of stress blasts available. Kristina Snead, the mother of UT pitcher Nate Snead, also owns an Apple watch and often compares her heart leaps with Christy Behnke’s. Perhaps a record number will emerge from the final pitch of Sunday’s 4-1 win over Texas A&M to extend the season a day, off Snead’s right hand and launched to right center by Aggies pinch hitter Ryan Targac.

It looked like it had a chance to tie the game with two runners on, but Targac had just missed centering it up. Kavares Tears settled under it on the Charles Schwab Stadium warning track. Snead and catcher Cal Stark shared a hug as the ball made a leathery landing. The heart of the Vols was confirmed again, as the hearts of Vols lovers slowly dropped from their throats.

“We’re gonna fight, man,” said Vols star Christian Moore, after a day of UT frustration at the plate finally broke late with two-run homers from Dylan Dreiling and Stark. “I’ve been preaching it all week and that’s what it is. We’re gonna fight, we’re not gonna give up. There’s nine innings, and we’ve got to hit. So good luck.”

Both teams could use a little luck on Monday in the decisive third game, and that might make the difference in which one emerges with the first national championship in program history. It’s that close and it’s worthy of the stage. A day after Texas A&M rolled 9-5 behind ace Ryan Prager and an offensive surge, taking advantage of Tennessee’s sloppiness, the Vols tied the series in a tense, well-pitched, well-played response.

Tennessee ace Drew Beam came up huge in his final performance for the Vols, shutting things down after giving up a solo homer to Jace LaViolette in the first. His four clutch innings in the blazing sun must be considered in terms of what he was seeing during his breaks — a UT offense that started 0 for 16 with runners on base and was struggling with the filthy stuff of Aggies reliever Chris Cortez.

“Speaks to what type of person he is. … You never got out of your car going into our parking lot wondering whether Drew was going to show up to work with the right mentality, whether he would be receptive to coaching, whether he would have an unselfish approach,” coach Tony Vitello said of Beam, who left to a rousing ovation from the orange-heavy crowd of 25,987, trailing 1-0 in the fifth. “And you always knew he would hook it up on the field for you.”

Tennessee reliever Aaron Combs came up huge in his final performance for the Vols, too. He got the win with four shutout innings. He also told Vitello he could go Monday after throwing 63 pitches, but Vitello choked up as he told the story about Combs. This was it, and what a way to go out.

“He’s got a real good balance of believing in himself, which, these kids all see swagger and they listen to rap songs and stuff like that, so they have their chest out,” Vitello said of Combs. “But there’s got to be a decent combination there. You should think you’re the best when you’re between the lines, but you also need to realize you wouldn’t be between the lines without all the people that helped you.”

Kirby Connell and Snead wrapped up a clutch day on the mound for the Vols — the place that was supposed to get them if they came up short in this run — and a day of very few hard-hit balls for the Aggies. But by the seventh inning, it was fair to wonder if the disappearance of the most explosive offense in the game was going to be the epitaph of the season.

Cortez, hitting 101 with his fastball and dropping off the table with his slider, got Moore and Blake Burke to ground out to second to end separate innings with the bases loaded. Frustrations were obvious at times, in particular for Moore, who yelled to his teammates on the bench to fire them up after he drew a walk to start the seventh.

That was off freshman Kaiden Wilson, pitching in that spot despite an 8.38 ERA and .368 average against. Moore got to second on a flyout from Burke, hurting his tender leg in the process (he said afterward he’s fine) but staying in the game. With two outs, Dreiling got a letter-high fastball from Wilson and sent it soaring out in right. Dreiling was so excited, he headbutted a helmet-less Moore at the plate.

“That didn’t feel too good,” Moore said, but the rest of the moment did.

“He’s a goat,” Moore said of Dreiling. “This man, he lives for the big moments. I’ve said it since last year, ever since that Vandy (walk-off single to win last season). He’s made for these moments, and it didn’t surprise me he hit that home run. I was just more like, ‘Oh my God, you’re literally him. You did it again, dude.’”

Stark gave the Vols separation in the eighth with his first hit in Omaha, crushing a Wilson slider to left and scoring Dean Curley. Even in the 9-5 loss, the Vols made a thin Aggies bullpen work, and now Monday looks like starter Justin Lamkin and reliever Evan Aschenbeck as the two reliable pieces available to win legendary coach Jim Schlossnagle his first championship.

Tennessee will turn again to perhaps the best individual story of its season, senior lefty Zander Sechrist, who is finishing his career as a lockdown starter in the biggest of moments. Connell and Snead, and perhaps others, could be key for the Vols.

“I’m more excited by the fact he gets another opportunity to run out there and do whatever the stuff is that he does,” Vitello said of Sechrist, a primary source of laughs around the program for years and now the guy who can make it a national championship program.

He was soaking it in and signing autographs next to Moore on the field after the game, having just watched Beam and Combs go out with their best, and the Vols hitters finally figure it out, and that last deep shot settle into Tears’ glove. His heart rate at that moment was not available, but it confirmed one more heart check for a team that had it in ample amounts Sunday.

“They don’t want this season to end just as much as I don’t want it to end,” Sechrist said of his teammates giving him this opportunity. “But tomorrow, win or lose, no matter what, it will end.”