The Tennessee Volunteers kicked off their 2020 baseball season with a 3-0 win over Western Illinois on Valentine’s Day.
Coming into the new season, the pitching staff was expected to be the crutch for the team to lean on and on Friday they did just that. The Vols win over WIU proved that Tennessee’s offense will likely not be overpowering this year, but with that said, the Vols were missing junior preseason All-American Alerick Soularie. The Vols scored three runs on just four hits all afternoon, two of those hits were home runs.
Here are a couple takeaways from Friday’s win:
Program newcomer Chad Dallas got the call to start on the mound after Garrett Crochet was sidelined with minor soreness. Dallas made the most of his opportunity as he posted four strikeouts over five innings and allowed just one hit and two walks.
Dallas got off to a hot start as he struck out the first two batters to enter the box. He followed that up with one more in the second inning before Leatherneck players began to get a feel for his stuff as they began putting the ball in play.
He picked up his fourth and final strikeout of the game in the fourth just before he surrendered his first, and only, hit allowed all game.
Junior Sean Hunley relieved Dallas to begin the top of the sixth inning. Hunley enters the 2020 season as a player who could fly a little under the radar but will be a “secret weapon” for the Vols per head coach Tony Vitello. Hunley has a career era of 2.54 over 124 total innings. He will likely be a weekend starter for Tennessee, but came out of the bullpen in long relief on Friday.
Hunley entered the game and ended the inning just as quickly as it began as he got all three WIU batters to pop out in just 12 pitches. Hunley came back out for the seventh for another three-up, three-down effort.
It was not until his third inning of work when Hunley finally gave up his first hit of the day as Jayden Gibson singled up the middle for Western Illinois. Hunley immediately shut down WIU’s shot at a comeback as he struck the next man out looking.
“It looked like guys didn’t even know what was coming from [Sean], not even his fastball,” catcher Connor Pavolony said on Hunley’s outing. “You could really tell he was confident in what he was throwing and that’s all you can really ask for.”
The game came to a quick end as Hunley snagged a comebacker to the mound and tossed it to first to retire the final Leatherneck batter as he picks up his first save in 2020 with a four-inning, one hit outing.
Vols rely on the longball
The Tennessee offense was quite stagnant on Friday afternoon as they attempted to shake off the early season kinks in the bats. Evan Russell got the Vols into the hit column first as he singled to left to begin the bottom of the second. Sophomore Connor Pavolony then put the first runs across the plate for the season as he hit a liner to left that carried its way out of the park to give the Big Orange a 2-0 lead.
The Vols struggled to muster up some offense as they did not get a runner on base after the second inning until Luc Lipcius drew his second walk of the evening in the fifth.
Tennessee got its first hit in four innings when Max Ferguson caught the defense on their heels as he dropped a textbook drag bunt that rode the line all the way until it came to a stop halfway down the basepath just inside the foul line. Ferguson then put the catcher’s arm to the test as he got caught stealing for the first out of the sixth.
Sophomore Jake Rucker got his season off to a hot start as he knocked his first homer of the year with an absolute line drive off the batter’s eye just over the 390 sign in center field to put UT up 3-0 in the eighth. This turned out to be Rucker’s first homer of his career and even surprised head coach Tony Vitello.
“Rucker has been able to drive the ball to right field this season which is something he wasn’t able to do last year,” Vitello said. “We haven’t seen him hit the batter’s eye in a scrimmage or even batting practice and yet he does it today so that was pretty impressive.”
That was the last action the bats for Tennessee saw as the next three batters were retired to end the bottom of the eighth and Hunley quickly ended the game in the top of the ninth to give the Vols a win on opening day.
Tennessee will continue with the second of three games against Western Illinois on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.