KNOXVILLE — Will Heflin figured he would pitch in Friday’s series opener against Georgia State because of the workload Sean Hunley and Redmond Walsh shouldered last weekend versus Indiana State, but he did not it would be in the form of his seventh career start.
A sore oblique led to junior right-hander Chad Dallas getting scratched, paving the way for Heflin to take his place atop the rotation.
The senior left-hander looked every bit like an ace against the Panthers, allowing one run on six hits over seven innings to lead No. 17 Tennessee to a 6-1 victory inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“When you play for a team as competitive as we are within the team, any inning is very valuable,” Heflin said. “I’ve never really cared (when I pitch), and I’m the old guy, so I’ve been there, done that.
“Each season, each game and each series is mutually exclusive for sure, but having that experience is definitely helpful because at the end of the day it’s just going out there and pitching. You just take the task as it comes and play baseball.”
Dallas was scratched for precautionary reasons, and it is not expected to sideline him for an extended period of time.
Tennessee coach Tony Vitello called February “spring training for college baseball,” and what he liked most about the early slate of games was that the Vols (9-2) were forced into a bevy of situations and forced to figure it out. They played from behind and with a lead. There have been games with perfect conditions, rain and wind.
UT has also had to overcome some adversity. Dallas’ absence was the second time in three games the Vols have been forced to adjust to a problem with a scheduled starter after senior right-hander Jackson Leath was pulled in the first inning Sunday after suffering a left hamstring injury.
“Rather than freaking out and making it a bigger deal than it is, it’s a baseball game,” Vitello said. “Regardless of what inning it is or for how long, when you get the ball you take it and run with it, and then when the coach decides to take it from you then you hand it off to the next guy. Odds are that if you’ve been working hard as a group, then the guy you’re giving the ball to is probably somebody you can trust as well.”
Heflin cruised through the first three innings of his first legitimate start since he pitched five shutout innings for the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League on July 29, 2019, facing the minimum before getting into some trouble in the fourth.
Back-to-back singles from Will Mize and Griffin Cheney followed by a Heflin throwing error on an Elian Merejo sacrifice bunt attempt loaded the bases with one away, but Heflin got Josh Smith to roll into a 6-4-3 double play to hang another zero.
“You’re not going to go through a game unscathed, and even when you’re rolling there is typically one inning where you either have to limit the damage or scoot out of it like I did right there,” Heflin said.
“Here’s a little fun fact that coach (Frank Anderson) talks about a lot: Most of the time the game is decided when a team scores more runs in one inning than the other team scores in all of them combined.
“Limiting that big inning is a huge deal, and that was a huge for us in that moment, and then I kind of settled in and got a couple quick innings after that.”
Heflin tossed two more scoreless inning before surrendering a solo home run to Smith in the seventh. The Morristown West alum closed out the frame with a strikeout of Blaine Marchman.
Sophomore lefty Kirby Connell tossed two scoreless innings to cap the victory, one that shows that if nothing else, Tennessee is capable of adjusting on the fly with success.
“It’s a little bit different because of the depth we have on this team because of everything that has been going on in the world with COVID — some people coming back because of the shortened draft and then people coming to campus or staying here that normally wouldn’t be here,” senior designated hitter Pete Derkay said. “We’ve always had the mentality of next man up, so if one person goes down or isn’t getting the job down, the next guy is going to come in and pick up the team.”