Vols Baseball- McLaughlin

KNOXVILLE, TN - March 07, 2021 - Pitcher Mark McLaughlin (33) of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Georgia State Panthers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

The No. 14 Tennessee baseball team rebounded from last weekend’s disappointing series with a perfect 4-0 week. The Vols took a midweek matchup at Austin Peay last Wednesday and then swept Georgia State at home over the weekend.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Infield

As a whole, the infield was Tennessee’s most productive group of hitters. Liam Spence, Jake Rucker and Max Ferguson anchored the group, starting all four games at shortstop, third base and second base, respectively.

Spence has been the Vols’ most consistently productive hitter to this point, and he continued with a great week. He batted .500 in four games, collecting seven hits in 14 at-bats, including a double and a triple. Spence drove in four runs and walked three times, all out of the leadoff spot. On the year, he leads the Vols’ qualified hitters with a .380 average and a 1.043 OPS.

Rucker had been off to a relatively slow start but seemed to turn the page. In four games at the three-hole, he batted .533 (8-15) and drove in eight runs, including a career-high four RBIs on Sunday. His biggest hit of the weekend was a three-run home run, his first of the year.

The junior infielder Ferguson was a preseason All-American entering the year but has just been average up to this point. He showed some improvement this past week, batting .307 (4-13) in four games, raising his season average to .239. Ferguson continued to get on base at a high level, as he worked six walks and scored two runs.

Luc Lipcius saw action in all four games, coming in for defense against Austin Peay and starting the weekend series at first base. Like Ferguson, Lipcius has been a shell of his former shelf early on but showed some signs of breaking out. He batted .300 against Georgia State, collecting three hits in 10 at-bats. He picked up three RBIs Saturday on a three-run home run, his second longball of the year.

Rounding out the infield was the catching duo of Connor Pavolony and Jackson Greer. Greer started at Austin Peay and the finale against Georgia State, while Pavolony caught the two middle games.

Pavolony has been outperformed by Greer this season and continued to struggle at the plate. Pavolony went 0-6 with a walk, a hit by pitch and a run scored. He also struck out twice.

Greer, who was the backup catcher entering the year, continued his early-season success. On Wednesday, he went 1-3 with a double that sparked the Vols’ five-run fifth inning against Austin Peay. Later that same inning, he recorded an RBI on a bases-loaded walk. Greer followed it up with a 1-4 Sunday afternoon.

It was a nice week for the Tennessee infield, that saw continued hot starts from Spence and Greer, and potential turnarounds out of Rucker, Ferguson and Lipcius.

Grade: A

Outfield

The Vols primarily started Drew Gilbert, Christian Scott and Jordan Beck from left to right in the outfield this past week. Not a lot of good happened for the outfield as a whole.

Gilbert had the best individual performance of the outfielders, batting .307 (4-13) in four games. He drove in three runs on a sacrifice fly and a two-run home run, walked three times and scored two runs.

Scott, the centerfielder, had a forgettable weekend, batting 1-8 in three starts. His best outing was Friday when he went 1-2 with a walk and a run scored.

After a blazing-hot start to his season, Beck took a major step back this week. He had a solid 2-5 day against Austin Peay, but fell off from there, going hitless in 13 at-bats over the weekend.

Strikeouts were Beck’s biggest issue, as whiffed six times in four games. He didn’t walk a single time this week (he has just two walks this year) and his on-base percentage fell to .278, the lowest of Tennessee’s qualified hitters.

Trey Lipscomb’s lone appearance of the week was a start in left field on Sunday. He did not have much of an impact, going 0-3 with a strikeout, and leaving two runners on base.

Gilbert’s solid week was the only redeemable factor in a disappointing showing from a talented group of outfielders.

Grade: C

DH and Bench

Let’s look at the rest of the Vols’ hitters. Pete Derkay and Kyle Booker split four games at designated hitter, with Booker starting the endcaps, and Derkay in-between. Derkay also started at first base at Austin Peay.

Booker went 0-5 in his two starts but still got on base. He walked three times and scored two runs. Derkay was solid in his three starts. He batted .272 and was 2-4 with an RBI on Friday. He scored two runs and additionally saw time in Sunday’s game as a defensive replacement for Greer at catcher.

Logan Steenstra and Evan Russell were the only other Vols to see time in the field but got only one at-bat between them. Russell struck out as a pinch hitter for Lipscomb on Sunday.

Grade: C+

Pitching

Starting pitching was a lingering concern for Tennessee heading into this week. Injuries to Jackson Leath and Chad Dallas left the Vols down two weekend rotation spots. Several Vols stepped up and gave their team some much-needed quality innings.

Following two shaky weekend starts, Elijah Pleasants came out of the bullpen on Wednesday and earned the win in a fantastic outing. He worked 6.0 scoreless innings, scattering three hits, walking none and striking out a career-high six batters. Pleasants came out of the pen on Sunday and pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, surrendering one hit and striking out three. He also earned the win in that outing.

On Friday night, Will Heflin stepped into the rotation for the injured Dallas and was brilliant. He threw 7.0 innings of one-run ball and struck out eight. Kirby Connell came on in relief of Heflin and pitched 2.0 scoreless innings to close the game.

Tennessee’s strong starting pitching continued on Saturday, as freshman Blade Tidwell turned in the best start of his collegiate career. He threw 6.0 scoreless innings, scattering four hits and two walks while striking out seven. Sean Hunley, the Vols’ versatile reliever, worked an inning and allowed a run, and closer Redmond Walsh pitched the last two frames to earn the save.

Sunday was more of a patchwork effort from the Vols’ pitching staff, but they still got the job done in shutout fashion. Mark McLaughlin started his second game of the season and went 3.2 scoreless innings as he worked out of several jams. After Pleasants relieved McLaughlin, Zander Sechrist, Camden Sewell and the two-way player Gilbert combined for three scoreless innings to end the game.

This past week was a tremendous effort from Tennessee pitching staff plagued by injuries. They had two runs this weekend to a very good Georgia State team and had to use Hunley and Walsh for just three innings.

Grade: A

Overall

The Vols faced two weaker teams and took care of business, plain and simple. Their offense and pitching came together in a way that we haven’t seen until this point, and the result was four impressive wins. Several of Tennessee’s key players look like they are rebounding from a slow start, and the pitching showed some life while the two mainstays were gone.

Tennessee has one more full week before SEC play begins. The Vols hit the road for a Tuesday matchup with Charleston (7-3) and will host UNC Greensboro (9-2) this weekend.

Grade: A

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