Evan Russell- baseball

KNOXVILLE, TN - March 27, 2021 - Evan Russell (6) during the game between the LSU Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

The No. 12 Tennessee baseball team (21-4, 5-1 SEC) went a perfect 4-0 this past week, cruising by Eastern Kentucky on Saturday and sweeping LSU in a competitive weekend series.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Infield

Infield regulars Luc Lipcius, Jake Rucker and Connor Pavolony rested Tuesday against Eastern Kentucky, as Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello gave some of his younger guys playing time. Between the two regulars that did start, only Max Ferguson played the whole game, as Liam Spence singled and walked twice in his three plate appearances.

Ferguson went 1-3 with an RBI single, two walks and two runs scored. Pete Derkay started at catcher and had a hit in four at-bats, scoring twice. Trey Lipscomb started at third base and had the best day of any Vol. He recorded an RBI double, a two-run home run and a run-scoring single, finishing 3-5 with four RBIs.

Lipcius was just 1-11 for the weekend before his final at-bat Sunday. With the bases loaded and two out, he lined a walk-off single to center that completed the sweep. The Vols’ hope Lipcius’ hit will carry his momentum into the next week as they approach the heart of SEC play.

Ferguson could not break out of his slump over the weekend, as he went 0-8 with three strikeouts. His only positive was four walks. Ferguson’s saving grace in a disappointing season is his on-base percentage, as he still gets on at a .408 rate despite a .259 batting average well under his career average.

Spence continued his excellent start, recording a hit, a walk and a run in the first two weekend games, before a three-hit effort Sunday. He scored five runs and increased his slash line to .389/.486/.531.

Rucker batted a solid 3-10 on the weekend, grabbing a hit in each contest. On Friday he laced an RBI triple and came around to score. The rest of his hits were singles, but he got on base twice more with two walks.

In three weekend starts, Pavolony was 2-10, with both hits coming in game two. He doubled and scored in the third, and singled in the bottom of the tenth.

They were not Tennessee’s strongest group, but still solid enough. Spence keeps raking, and Lipcius and Rucker had some timely hits. Tennessee needs more production from the unit as a whole going forward.

Grade: B-

Outfield

Drew Gilbert, Kyle Booker and Jordan Beck started left to right in the outfield on Tuesday. Gilbert started off his strong week 2-3 with a double, driving in two and scoring twice. Booker finished Tuesday 1-5 with an RBI double and a run scored. Beck went 1-4 with an RBI single, and also came around to score. More importantly for Beck, he didn’t strikeout in the game.

The Vols’ outfield was back to normal for the weekend series, featuring Evan Russell, Gilbert and Beck left to right. Russell and Beck both took an O-fer Friday, with a strikeout each. Gilbert was 1-3 with an RBI double that gave UT some insurance late in the contest.

The outfielders were the heroes of game two, which spanned both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, as it was postponed due to lightning in the area. Russell finished 3-5, homering in each of his first three at-bats. He totaled five RBIs and tied a school record for the most home runs in a game.

Despite Russell’s efforts, LSU rallied to tie the game, but Gilbert provided some late-inning heroics. He tied the game with an RBI double in the ninth and walked it off with a solo homer in the 11th. Beck, meanwhile, finished 1-5 with three strikeouts.

None of starting outfielders recorded a hit in Sunday’s finale, though they were not unproductive. Gilbert and Beck both drove in runs early for the Vols, on a fielder’s choice and a groundout, respectively.

It was a great week for the Tennessee outfield, with a couple of performances really boosting this group. It’s difficult to criticize a group that featured a three-homer game, but Beck’s continued struggles just slightly lowers the grade.

Grade: A-

DH/Bench

Tennessee gave some different looks Tuesday as it rested its regulars. Jorel Ortega got the nod as the designated hitter, showed discipline at the plate. He did finish 0-2, but he walked three times and scored twice.

Courtland Lawson, Christian Scott and Ethan Payne all saw action off the bench against Western Kentucky. Lawson pinch hit for Spence in the fifth inning and blasted a two-run shot for his first collegiate home run. Scott finished with a hit in two tries. Payne’s night was not as memorable, popping too short in his only at-bat.

Batting in the two-hole, Derkay went 1-9 as the DH in the weekend series. He did walk three times and scored a run in each game, but was otherwise quiet. His lone hit was a first-inning double on Sunday.

Tennessee went to its bench just once in the weekend series but to good use. Christian Scott pinch ran for Derkay after he walked in the top of the ninth. Scott came around to score the tying run on Gilbert’s double later in the inning.

Grade: B-

Starters

Tony Vitello opted for a bullpen game Tuesday, getting some of his younger guys playing time. The freshman lefthander Jake Fitzgibbons started his first collegiate game against Eastern Kentucky. He worked two innings and allowed two hits, though one of them left the ballpark. He also struck out one and walked one. It was the second straight appearance Fitzgibbons allowed one run.

On Friday, Dallas cruised through seven innings against the Tigers’ offense that led the SEC in homers. He scattered five hits and a walk, and allowed just one run, a second-inning solo shot to Gavin Dugas. He good command of his pitches and pounded the zone, recording a career-high 11 strikeouts to earn the win.

On Saturday, Heflin surrendered a one-out home run to Tre’ Morgan in the first. He struck out the side on 10 pitches in the second but allowed three hits and a run in the third inning. Heflin recorded one out in the fourth but could go no further. All told, Heflin pitched 3.1 innings with six hits, a walk, two earned runs and six strikeouts, keeping the score close until UT could go to its bullpen.

Tidwell continued his strong freshman campaign with a solid outing in his first home SEC start. He allowed a base runner in every inning he pitched, but largely worked around them, only allowing a Cade Beloso solo homer in the fourth. Tidwell started the sixth inning of the seven inning contest but just ran out of gas. He got two outs but allowed two hits and a walk that tied the game and pushed his pitch count well over 100.

Tennessee’s starters were pivotal in the sweep of LSU. Dallas, Heflin and Tidwell started for the second consecutive SEC weekend series and showed some potential, as the bookend starters, really shined, while Heflin gave the Vols some solid work.

Grade: A-

Bullpen

In Tuesday’s bullpen game, seven guys saw work after Fitzgibbons. Elijah Pleasants, Zander Sechrist, Connor Housley, the two-way player Gilbert, Shawn Scott, Hollis Flanning and Christian Delashmit all got at least one out for the Vols. The group was successful too, as they allowed four hits and no earned runs over the game’s final seven innings. The freshman Sechrist shouldered the load, striking out four in 2.2 innings to earn his first collegiate win.

Sean Hunley worked in each of the weekend games and was the only pitcher used after the starter on Friday and Sunday. He threw two shutout innings to get the save Friday, his only blemish a walk in the ninth. In Saturday’s outing, he struck out the last batter in the top of the 11th and earned the win, as he was the pitcher of record for Gilbert’s walk-off homer.

Hunley worked 2.1 innings in the finale, shutting out the Tigers through two extra-innings. He surrendered one hit to two strikeouts and also got the win, being the pitcher of record for Lipcius’ walk-off.

Camden Sewell, Redmond Walsh and Kirby Connell pitched between Heflin and Hunley on Saturday. Sewell and Walsh got hit hard, combining for six earned runs to cough up what was at one point a 7-3 Tennessee lead. Connell pitched 2.2 shutout innings around the lightning-postponement, silencing the Tigers in extras as the Vols’ offense rallied back.

For the most part, the bullpen was strong this week. Walsh had a second straight bad outing, but Connell was very good. Hunley continued his success, giving Tennessee a versatile weapon in the back of its pen.

Grade: B+

Overall

Not much to criticize in an undefeated week. Western Kentucky was not a difficult opponent for the Vols, but they made a statement with a convincing sweep of LSU.

Tennessee has momentum heading into a midweek matchup with Western Carolina and a weekend series at Alabama, who was just swept by Ole Miss. Another series win, or even sweep, would be critical in the ever-important SEC East race.

Grade: A-

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