KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Behind a dominating performance by junior southpaw Steven Gruver, the Tennessee baseball team notched its first shutout since 2007 on the opening day of the 2011 season as it defeated Milwaukee, 4-0, in front of 2,345 Volunteer faithful on Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"It is always important to get off to a good start and this was about as good of a first game as we could have asked for," UT Head Coach Todd Raleigh said. "(Steven) did a great job out there. He competed, he made some pitches and he really helped himself out there a couple of times with those pick-off moves. Our defense was outstanding today and he made pitches when he had to."
A Canfield, Ohio, product, Gruver twirled six shutout innings, allowing eight hits and striking out eight while walking just two. None of the eight hits he yielded, however, went for extra bases. Friday night's effort marked the fourth appearance of his career in which he worked six or more frames.
The Panthers were actually able to out-hit the Vols, 10 to eight, but the Orange and White got the timely hits when they needed them. The biggest of which came early when as the Vols staged a two-out rally in the bottom of the second to crack the scoreboard for the first time in 2011.
Junior Matt Ramsey got the frame rolling with a lead-off single and a stolen base, but it looked like he would be stranded at second after consecutive strikeouts put a pair of outs on the board. Milwaukee starter Chad Pierce immediately walked junior Zach Osborne on four pitches before hitting freshman Andrew Toles just three pitches later to load the bases for senior Khayyan Norfork.
With the count at 2-1, the Ripley, Tenn., native laced a fastball to the right-center gap for a bases-clearing double that put UT ahead 3-0. He would finish the day 2-for-4 with his trio of RBIs. Ramsey was the only other Vol to record multiple hits on the day, also finishing 2-for-4.
"(Norfork) had a great day, two hits and one of his other at-bats was a hard-hit ball," Raleigh said. "It was big. What you need to win are three things, good pitching, good defense and timely hitting and Ky cleared the bases with a timely two-out hit. That was the difference tonight."
Two innings after Norfork's double, Gruver had to do some heavy lifting to keep the Panthers off the scoreboard in the top of the fourth. Milwaukee struck quickly in the stanza, putting runners on the corners with just one out after back-to-back singles and a fielder's choice. Gruver bore down though, and struck out the next two hitters to escape unscathed.
That inning seemed to help him find his rhythm as he came back out the next frame and struck out the next two batters he faced as well. Of the final eight outs he recorded, five came via a punchout.
The Vols had an opportunity to really break the game open in the seventh, but had to settle for just one run and a 4-0 lead. Toles got the ball rolling when he smoked one down the third-base line for a one-out double and his first collegiate hit. Norfork followed with a single to right that put runners on the corners for senior Josh Liles. Norfork would swipe second without a throw, but Liles was hit by a pitch to load the bases just seconds later anyway. Senior Matt Duffy then increased the Vol lead to four with a sac fly to center that brought home junior Chris Pierce who had pinch run for Toles at third.
At that point, Tennessee decided to put some of the aggressiveness on the basepaths it had talked about all spring into action, calling a delayed double steal. Liles broke from first, but stopped halfway to second when the catcher threw the ball down. Norfork raced home from third, but was called out on a bang-bang play at the plate to end the inning.
"I thought we ran that play to perfection," Raleigh said. "Ky probably should have slid feet first, instead of head first, but the catcher did a great job of blocking the plate. It took a perfect throw. The toughest play in baseball is at the plate and they made it, but I was really pleased with how we executed it even though the result wasn't there."
After Gruver's six strong innings of work, sophomore Zack Godley and freshman Nick Williams came out of the bullpen to make their first appearances in a Tennessee uniform and complete the shutout. Godley struck out three in two innings of relief, while Williams sat the side down in order in the top of the ninth to close out the contest.
Tennessee's last shutout came on March 10, 2007, when James Adkins and Ryne Simpson combined to shut out Siena, 5-0, in Knoxville.
"I've been telling everybody that it's a different game," Raleigh said. "We're going to hit some home runs, but the pitching for them was really good. You've got to tip your cap to them. It is a different game. You're not just going to get out there on your front foot and hit those home runs anymore. You're really going to have to drive through the ball.
Tennessee and Milwaukee will return to the diamond for the second game in their three-game set at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 19. Redshirt freshman Jon Reed will make his collegiate debut in the Orange and White, while senior Jayme Sukowaty will take to the mound for the Panthers. The series will come to a close at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
TEAM NOTES Friday's attendance of 2,345 was 45 more than the 2,300 that showed up to watch Tennessee versus Xavier in the season opener last year…The Vols only played four games all of last season in less than the two hours and 26 minutes it took for Friday's contest…UT moves to 4-0 in season-openers under head coach Todd Raleigh and is 67-33-2 (.667) all-time in lid-lifters…The shutout is the first for the Vols under Raleigh and the first overall for the program since a 5-0 win over Siena on March 9, 2007…The 4-0 victory was the lowest-scoring opening day game for UT since it defeated West Florida, 4-0, on Feb. 19, 1987.
INDIVIDUAL NOTES Junior starting pitcher Steven Gruver finished one off his career-high with eight strikeouts (9 at Oregon State 2/27/10)…Friday marked the fourth time in his career that he has pitched 6.0+ innings…In those four games, he is 3-0 with an 0.69 ERA and 25 strikeouts to just six walks…Freshman Andrew Toles was the team's starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter…He recorded his first career hit with a double down the left-field line in the seventh inning…Junior Chris Pierce, sophomore Zack Godley and freshman Nick Williams also made their Tennessee debuts on Friday…Junior Matt Ramsey made his second career start behind the plate…Senior Josh Liles made his first career start at first base.