The No. 6 Tennessee baseball team finished the week with a 2-2 split, after a 14-12 midweek shootout win against Western Carolina and a difficult 1-2 series loss against in-state rival No. 2 Vanderbilt. The Vols sit at 29-8 overall with a 10-5 SEC record after their first .500 week of the season.
Let’s take a look at how well each section of the Tennessee club performed this past week.
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said after the Florida series that second baseman Max Ferguson was starting to “just play baseball,” and he did just that against Western Carolina. Ferguson finished the game going 4-for-4 with six RBIs and two runs scored. The junior finished a triple shy of the cycle.
Jake Rucker played well at the hot corner. The Vos’ third baseman tallied three hits, drove in a run and crossed home plate once. Logan Steenstra and Luc Lipcius each recorded a hit apiece at shortstop and first base, respectively. Pete Derkay went hitless in three at-bats at catcher.
The Vols’ infield didn’t play well this weekend against the Commodores, aside from Liam Spence and the catchers.
Spence didn’t record a hit for the entire series, but he did walk six times. After the weekend, his on-base streak extended to 37 games, going all the way back to last season. Spence has a .528 on-base percentage for the 2021 campaign.
Connor Pavolony was the second leading hitter for the Vols this past weekend. The catcher recorded two hits, including a home run. Jackson Greer, who started for Pavolony due to a hand injury, went 1-for-2 with a solo shot in game three.
The rest of the infield didn’t have too much to brag about. Rucker, Ferguson, Lipcius and Logan Steenstra combined to go 6-for-39 (.153), over the weekend, including 15 punch outs.
The infield went gangbusters in the midweek game against WCU, but they came up terribly short against Vanderbilt. Granted, most people have, as Vandy possesses two pitchers who could potentially be top-3 picks in the 2021 MLB Draft. However, errors and blown opportunities with runners in scoring position infected this bunch.
The Vols’ outfield had a less than stellar showing in their Tuesday matchup against the Catamounts.
Jordan Beck led the trio with two hits, two RBIs and two runs scored out in right field. Evan Russell didn’t record a hit in left field, but he did walk twice. Drew Gilbert suffered an 0-for-6 night at the plate, including two strikeouts.
Against Vanderbilt, most of the outfield struggled, but one man enjoyed a career setting weekend.
Russell is a man who relishes in the opportunity to make big-time plays. Tennessee’s left fielder didn’t start in game one, but was slotted in for game two and had a career day. Russell jacked three balls over the outfield wall, including a grand slam to give him six RBIs in Saturday night’s affair. This is the second time this season that Russell has hit three home runs in a game.
The Tennessee walk-on hit another home run in Sunday’s matchup. He finished the weekend with a .500/.556/2.000 slash line, along with four home runs, seven RBIs and four runs scored.
On the flip side, Gilbert and Beck were not able to help out their outfield mate all weekend. The two Vols registered just one hit over 21 at-bats. They also combined to strike out eight times.
All in all, it was a disappointing week for Tennessee’s outfield. They didn’t do much in their midweek matchup and two-thirds of the unit didn’t show up in the biggest series for Tennessee, possibly ever. While Russell’s weekend was filled with moonshots and diving grabs, it wasn’t enough to bring up the poor play these last four games.
Kyle Booker moved from the outfield to the DH spot and made his opportunity worth his while. The true freshman finished the game with three hits, an RBI and a run scored. Jackson Greer was the lone bench player for the Vols. The ETSU transfer tallied two hits and two RBIs.
The Vols didn’t see much out of their bench bats over the weekend. Russell went 0-for-1 on Friday. Booker recorded a single in game two of the series. Trey Lipscomb and Christian Scott each failed to record a hit in their lone plate appearance on Sunday. Derkay slotted in at the DH spot on Sunday and walked.
The Tennessee bench and DH spot didn’t do anything spectacular, but they also didn’t do anything that was horrible. They were just kind of there, like most weeks. It is worth noting that Spence was the DH for games one and two this weekend, but his line was already mentioned.
Good pitching was few and far between for Tennessee against WCU.
Will Mabrey and Mark McLaughlin were the only Vol pitchers to go more than an inning and not give up a run. Together they allowed just one hit and one walk over 2.1 innings of work. The rest was all downhill for Tennessee.
Jake Fitzgibbons, the starter, surrendered three runs in less than an inning. Jason Rackers and Camden Sewell each gave up a run. Redmond Walsh delivered three runs to the Catamounts. Finally, Connor Housley and Sean Hunley each gave up a pair late in the ball game.
The Vols weren’t able to find that needed consistency from their staff in their weekend series against Vandy either.
Chad Dallas started on Friday and was spectacular. The Vols’ ace went 7.0 innings, giving up three runs (two earned) on five hits while striking out seven. The relief core took some lumps when Mabrey and Housley entered, as they both gave up runs in a combined 0.1 innings pitched. Walsh and Elijah Pleasants didn’t allow a hit or walk in their 1.2 innings pitched.
In game two, Will Heflin was able to go above and beyond. Tennessee’s starter pitched 7.0 innings as well but gave up four runs (one earned) on five hits while punching out four. Hunley entered in the eighth and had a sketchy performance, giving up two hits, but was able to exit the inning unscathed. Connell closed the door for a three-up, three-down ninth.
The rubber match didn’t have quality Tennessee pitching until it was too late. Blade Tidwell started and gave up four runs and six hits over the first three innings. Connell and Sewell gave up a combined six runs over 2.2 innings of work. McLaughlin stepped up when his team needed it, as he gave them 2.2 shutout innings. Walsh faced one batter and recorded two outs.
Tennessee went through some ups and some downs with its pitching staff. Giving up a dozen runs in a midweek game is never a good thing, and an inconsistent bullpen in conference play only spells disaster during the playoffs. However, it wasn’t all bad. Dallas and Heflin stepped up as the elder statesman to keep the Vols in games one and two, despite going up against Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, respectively.
Tennessee had an unnecessary shootout against WCU on Tuesday. Those games are supposed to help teams hone their skills against top-level competition during the weekend. Some of the issues that plagued the Vols on Tuesday showed back up for the weekend, which was the most inopportune time for that.
Over the weekend, the Vols faced a really good team, no doubt about it. Vanderbilt was the top-rated team in the country, and could very well be on its way back to the position. They have MLB-level talent up and down the lineup and on their pitching staff.
However, Tennessee is a good team too. They aren’t ranked No. 6 in the nation for no reason. While they may not have that top-level talent, they have guys at every position who know their job and can do it well. That’s why this week was so disappointing. The Vols had a shot to prove who they can be, and guys played out of character at the wrong time.