The Tennessee baseball team will enter this weekend’s series against No. 5 Mississippi State with a two-game winning streak, which includes a win over No. 5 Vanderbilt last Sunday.
Tennessee was able to win its most recent game as well, a 6-2 victory Tuesday night over the Belmont Bruins. The Vols will look to carry the momentum from those two victories into another tough series against an SEC opponent that is ranked in the top 25.
“I think they are earning the title of being relentless,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “It is very hard to earn that title, but once you have it you kind of wear it like a badge on your sleeve, and now you start to believe it.”
Each of Tennessee’s first three opponents in SEC play have also been ranked. Overall, the Vols have a record of 3-6 in SEC play after series’ against Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The road does not get any easier from here, with a series against the Bulldogs looming this weekend.
“I think the SEC is probably one of the best baseball conferences in the country, if not the best,” Connor Pavolony said. “We prepare for these just like we prepare for every other game.”
Mississippi State will enter the series against Tennessee with a record of 25-5 (5-4 SEC). The Bulldogs started the season with an impressive record of 17-0 through non-conference play. Like the Vols and many other SEC teams, Mississippi State has opened SEC play against three ranked opponents.
The Bulldogs were able to win two of three at Florida to open up the SEC slate. They followed that up with taking two out of three from an Auburn team who swept Tennessee a few weeks ago.
Last weekend, Mississippi State won the first game of the series against the LSU Tigers, 6-5, on Thursday night. However, LSU responded with wins on Friday and Saturday to take the series against the Bulldogs.
The Tennessee pitching staff will be challenged once again this weekend, with the task of keeping a powerful offense in check. Coming into the weekend, Mississippi State leads the SEC in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored and RBIs.
The most impressive stat for the Bulldogs’ offense is the number of doubles they have on the season. Mississippi State leads the SEC in doubles this season with 82. The second team in the SEC in this stat is Vanderbilt, who only has 65. The combination of power and timely hitting has been the driving force for the Bulldogs’ offense this season.
“They are a group that got hot at the right time, but also got hot because they are incredibly talented,” Vitello said of last year’s Mississippi State team. “They had a lot of things go right for them at the end of last year, and they return a lot of those things that went right for them, so that’s kind of how they have picked up where they left off.”
Individually, their offense is led by senior Jake Mangum, who leads the team with a batting average of .417 through 30 games. He also leads the team with 58 hits, while only striking out seven times. As a team, Mississippi State is last in the SEC in strikeouts.
“I think they are all pretty disciplined hitters,” Pavolony said. “I thought we dealt with pretty disciplined hitters last weekend against Vanderbilt so it going to be the same approach as last weekend.”
The matchup to watch all weekend will be to see if the Tennessee pitching staff will be able to pitch well enough to keep the Vols in the game. There is no secret that Tennessee has been led by its pitching all season, ranking third in the SEC in ERA at 2.91.
“With this pitching staff, it’s not about doing more, it is about doing less,” Pavolony said. “I think Coach Anderson does a great job coaching them and put a lot of time in with these guys, and I think they put a lot of time in on their own.”
While Tennessee will have to limit the Bulldogs on the offensive side of the ball, it will not be able to shut them out. This means that Tennessee will have to be able to score runs in order to compete this weekend.
The offense took a big step last weekend against Vanderbilt, scoring a total of 13 runs in the series. In comparison, in the Vols’ first SEC road series, they were only able to manufacture five runs against Auburn.
It will be important for Tennessee to score runs in the early innings this weekend, which they have been good at the previous few games. Tennessee has been able to score in the first inning in each of its last six games.
The Vols will look to take advantage of having a top five team coming to Knoxville, as the Vols have posted a home record of 16-3 this season.
“If you are going to play good competition, if you had a choice, you would much rather be on your home turf,” Vitello said. “Our guys are definitely more comfortable here, that’s probably the case for every team in our league. Now that the weather is warming up, I think the fans will make a big impact on the game.”
First pitch for the game Friday night against the Bulldogs is set for 6:30 p.m. at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.