The Tennessee baseball team is coming off its best week in SEC play, posting a record of 3-1, including two wins against No. 2 Georgia.
While the road never gets easier in the SEC, the Vols will have their first SEC series of the season this weekend that is not against a team in the top 25 when they travel to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats.
“They went down to Oxford and beat Mississippi, and I don’t know that I have ever done that,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “Their brand new facility is great, their players are great, their coach won national coach of the year, so there is a long list of things we can go to if we need to, but I don’t think we need to.
“Our guys understand that we are still unproven as a group, so they are hungry.”
Tennessee will enter the three-game series against Kentucky having won four of its last five games, posting an overall record of 26-11 (6-9 SEC). On the other side, Kentucky will also come into this week coming off of a series win against No. 15 Ole Miss, while posting an overall record of 20-16 (4-11 SEC). The Rebels were able to defeat Kentucky in the first game of the series on Friday night, 8-2, but Kentucky rebounded with a pair of wins on Saturday and Sunday.
“That was the talk about there just now,” Jake Rucker said. “We have to go in there and do what we need to do, and not overlook them.”
In Tennessee’s last series against the Bulldogs, they were able to rely on strong pitching to pick up two huge wins in conference play, shutting out the Bulldogs on Thursday and Friday to start the series. On Thursday, Garrett Crochet got the start on the mound for the Vols, his first start of the season. Crochet took advantage of the opportunity, pitching five innings without allowing a run in a 2-0 shutout victory.
With the way that Crochet pitched on Thursday out-dueling Georgia ace Emerson Hancock, it would have been hard to imagine an equally dominant pitching performance on Friday for Tennessee. However, that is what they got out of starter Garrett Stallings.
After Hancock had pitched a complete game the night before for Georgia, Stallings pitched a complete game shutout on Friday night. Overall, he threw nine innings only allowing five hits and picking up five strikeouts. Tennessee will hope to continue to get dominant pitching to get another series win against Kentucky, and moving forward in the SEC season.
“Crochet will pitch Thursday night, that’s what I know for now,” Vitello said. “We don’t even have a travel roster posted for these guys yet, so you kind of put everything on hold because you want to win these games.”
Just as the Vols did against Georgia, Kentucky relied heavily on its pitching staff to pick up the series win against Ole Miss last weekend. In the final two games of the series, the Kentucky pitching staff held the Rebels to just three runs, after allowing Ole Miss to score eight runs in the first game on Friday.
This was even more impressive looking at the numbers that Ole Miss has put up this season, ranking second in the SEC in runs scored and third in the conference in batting average.
While Kentucky was able to limit the Rebels offensively, Kentucky has had problems at times this year giving up runs. As a team, Kentucky ranked twelfth in the SEC in earned run average, with a team ERA of 4.37. In comparison, Tennessee, who has one of the best pitching staffs in the SEC, sitting at a 2.91 mark.
Kentucky will hope to hold Tennessee to a limited amount of runs this week and turn each game into a low-scoring affair. Similarly, this will be the same strategy that Tennessee will try to employ as well. The Vols have thrived this season on scoring just enough runs to give their dominant pitching staff enough cushion to get the job done.
While both Tennessee and Kentucky are coming off of SEC series last weekend, they had different results in their midweek games on Tuesday heading into a pivotal SEC clash this weekend. Tennessee was able to defeat Morehead State on Tuesday evening 3-1, while Kentucky fell to in-state rival Louisville by a score of 18-6.
“We are yet to win a road series, so I feel like it would be huge to get our first road series win,” Camden Sewell said. “To get that first one over is our main goal right now, to take every game by game and hopefully come out on top this weekend.”
The first game of the series will be Thursday night in Lexington, Kentucky. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.