The No. 20 Tennessee Volunteers will head to Columbia, South Carolina to open up conference play against the Gamecocks.
Tennessee is coming off a rough weekend as it dropped the series to Wright State two games to one but bounced back with a midweek win over in-state rival ETSU on Tuesday by a score of 17-5.
South Carolina is riding a five-game win streak heading into the weekend as it beat Furman in a midweek game 3-1 in 12 innings, swept Cornell this weekend and beat the Citadel on Tuesday.
The Gamecocks come into SEC play with a .272 team average, which ranks them at No. 89 in the nation. South Carolina has a history of being a powerful team and have continued that into this year as the Gamecocks have hit 21 long balls this season tying them for twelfth — ten spots behind the Vols who have hit 31 this season.
“We know we have a good team in South Carolina this weekend on the road,” junior outfielder Alerick Soularie said after Tuesday’s win. “They’re always a good team power wise, they usually hit a lot of home runs, but in the end they’re just an SEC team, that’s all I can say. There is always competition in this league and we know we’re playing a team that will come out and want to beat us.”
The Gamecocks' pitching staff will be something to watch for, as Tennessee will face its first big weekend rotation. South Carolina has a team ERA of 2.81 and has struck out 184 batters. This staff will have to limit the potent Vols offense that leads the nation in runs per game with 10.6 and will have to do so by keeping the ball in the park — Tennessee has hit an aforementioned 31 home runs this year. South Carolina will also need to limit the walks issued as the Vols’ offense has been extremely patient this year, drawing 124 base on balls through 17 games, which comes in at second in the nation behind highly ranked Texas Tech.
Tennessee’s rotation gained two valuable pieces over the past week, as preseason All-American Garrett Crochet made his season debut on Sunday. He went 3.1 innings, giving up just two hits and striking out six batters while keeping the opposition scoreless. Camden Sewell also made his season debut as he too returned from an injury on Tuesday. Sewell got the start against ETSU and pitched three innings, giving up just one hit which was a solo home run. He finished his start with five strikeouts.
On top of gaining two very big arms to the rotation, the Vols’ pitching staff has already been extremely impressive thus far. The team as a whole ranks fifth in the nation in ERA with a team average of 2.00 for the first 17 games of the season.
“I think we can be as good of a team as we want to be,” sophomore pitcher Camden Sewell said Tuesday postgame. “We have a lot of freshman that fill in and do a great job, so I really think we can be as good as we want to be.”
The bullpen has been almost perfect through the first part of the season and is headlined by Sean Hunley and Redmond Walsh. Hunley has been, what head coach Tony Vitello calls, “a swiss army knife” out of the pen, as he has made appearances in multiple different roles but competes just the same. He has posted a 0.54 ERA in six outings, where he has struck out 14 batters over his 16.2 innings issuing just two walks and only allowing one run. Walsh has been lights out of the pen as well as the closer and has tossed 11.2 innings without allowing an earned run to cross the plate while striking out 10.
“Hunley, Leath, and Sewell have been our swiss army knife guys,” head coach Tony Vitello said on Tuesday. “I trust them starting, closing, middle relief, extra innings, really anywhere. Those three guys have been really valuable for us and we may see one of them picking up a start this weekend.”
The Vols will look to steal a series win in Columbia to give the team some major momentum before heading home for one of the biggest series of the year, as Tennessee takes on Vanderbilt for a three game series in Lindsey Nelson Stadium beginning on March 20.
Before the Vandy Boys come to town, the Vols will host the Georgia State Panthers for a midweek game on Tuesday.