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Apr. 18—Well, that was fairly dramatic.

Evan Russell’s grand slam to left-center field in the eighth inning turned a 4-3 deficit into a 7-4 lead and catapulted fifth-ranked Tennessee to an 8-4 triumph Saturday night over second-ranked Vanderbilt at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The first series ever in which the Volunteers and Commodores are top-five teams is squared at a game apiece entering Sunday afternoon’s rubber match.

“You saw guys literally do whatever they had to do for the jersey they were wearing,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said afterward on a Zoom call. “Evan Russell is an in-state kid who has bled orange his whole life. It was just a great team effort, and there was a great energy in the park today.”

Vanderbilt won Friday night’s opener 5-0 behind Kumar Rocker, who yielded just two hits in his seven stellar innings. To pull even, the Vols would have to hold their own against Jack Leiter, the son of former major leaguer Al Leiter who entered Saturday’s showdown with a 7-0 record and an 0.55 ERA.

Connor Pavolony and Russell homered against Leiter in the fourth inning to put the hosts up 2-0, but that lead was erased when CJ Rodriguez launched a three-run shot to left in the sixth that provided Vanderbilt a 3-2 advantage. The Commodores built a 4-2 lead, but Russell homered for a second time in the seventh to pull the Vols within 4-3.

Russell’s eighth-inning blast capped a 3-for-3 performance in which he drove in six runs.

“The biggest challenge you’ve got against the club we just played is the two guys you’re staring down,” Vitello said. “What if you don’t beat the first one? We were facing a guy who to this point appeared to be unbeatable, so to show up with that attitude and to carry it throughout the game, including when we gave up the lead, was quite impressive.”

Tennessee and Vanderbilt are now tied atop the Southeastern Conference’s East Division standings with 10-4 records, with the Vols 29-7 overall and the Commodores 27-6. Blade Tidwell (4-1, 2.91) is scheduled to start the finale for Tennessee, with Patrick Reilly (3-1, 3.18) scheduled for Vanderbilt.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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