Tennessee Baseball took the 2020 season opener against Western Illinois, 3-0, at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Friday afternoon.
“I am glad that we got to play and you talk about the environment, at least I did with the guys afterwards, and just the vibe all day long,” said head coach Tony Vitello. “It was good, nobody was too tense but at times they were a little too loose. We want guys to celebrate when their teammates do well but we gotta be focused on every single pitch because you don’t know which pitch will impact the game.”
Early season projections had this team being built around their pitching, and it proved to be true Opening Day. Chad Dallas started for the Vols in place of Garrett Crochet, who is dealing with minor arm soreness. Dallas threw five innings of one hit ball. He struck out four and walked two on 76 pitches and also received the win in his first-career appearance for Tennessee.
Dallas is the second Vols pitcher in as many seasons to throw five-plus innings of shutout ball in their first start with the program. Camden Sewell pitched six shutout innings and gave up only one hit in his first-career start last season.
“It was awesome,” said Dallas. “Hearing that Crochet went down with some soreness, everyone was wondering who it was gonna be and when I got the call, the whole team was excited for me and totally behind me. It was really exciting, being out there was truly awesome especially with it being Opening Day. Coaches called a great game and the team played great behind me.”
Sean Hunley replaced Dallas in the top of the sixth and picked up where his teammate left off. Hunley threw four more shutout innings and gave up just one hit, while striking out two on 50 pitches.
Dallas started the game off strong. He recorded two strikeouts and it was three-up three-down for the Leathernecks. Western Illinois starter Javin Drake matched Dallas pitch for pitch, as he also recorded two strikeouts and sat down Tennessee’s first three hitters.
It wasn’t until the bottom of the second when the first run crossed home plate. Vols catcher Connor Pavolony hit a two-run shot over the left field wall to make the game 2-0 in favor of Tennessee.
“He was mixing things around early and he was starting us off with breaking balls and I just had a really good look,” said Pavolony. “Honestly, Russell’s at-bat was probably the most important part because he grinded for that hit and made the pitcher a little more fatigued.”
Drake would go on to recover from the two-run shot and pitch into the end of the fifth inning before being taken out of the ballgame. Drake threw for five innings, gave up two hits and two runs, while striking out five and walking two in 85 pitches.
The third and final run wouldn’t be scored until the bottom of the eighth. Western Illinois reliever Chandler Fochs replaced Drake and gave up a lead-off homerun to shortstop Jake Rucker. The shot went over the centerfield wall and was Rucker’s first collegiate home run.
Hunley finished the game off for the Vols and recorded the four inning save. He retired the first eight batters he faced to help secure Tennessee’s first win of the season.
The Vols play Western Illinois in game two of this weekend series tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.