The No. 4 Tennessee baseball team bounced back from a tough Vanderbilt series with a 3-1 week, taking a midweek matchup with Tennessee Tech before winning two of three on the road at Texas A&M.
Here’s how the Vols graded out.
Tennessee’s group of infielders had one of its most complete weeks at the plate, finally resembling the talented group we thought they would be. At first base, Luc Lipcius sat in the midweek game, but hit in each contest over the weekend, totaling four hits, two runs scored and three RBIs. In the series finale Sunday, Lipcius hit his fifth home run of the year, one of six homers the Vols hit that day.
At second base, Max Ferguson continued his recent hot streak. He hit safely in three of the four games and drove in five runs, though he did make an error in the field Sunday. Ferguson had the walk-hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s win and launched a solo home run Sunday, his fifth of the year. He has now hit three home runs in the last eight games after hitting just two over his first 24 games.
Liam Spence also sat Tuesday night, but walked in a pinch hit appearance. Over the weekend, Spence batted 5-for-14 with four runs scored and an RBI. The Geelong, Australia native drew three walks on the week, extending his on-base streak to 41 consecutive games. The short stop is second in the conference in batting average at .373.
Third baseman Jake Rucker had the best week of any Vol. He led the Vols with a .556 batting average, 10 hits, six runs, four doubles, 17 total bases and a 1.523 OPS. He hit in all four games last week and tied his career-high with three hits in all three games against Texas A&M over the weekend. Rucker set a new career-high with four runs scored Sunday, and for his efforts, he was named SEC Co-Player of the Week.
After being hit on the hand with a pitch against Vanderbilt, catcher Connor Pavolony sat in Tuesday’s game, before returning to catch every inning over the weekend, including both halves of the doubleheader. He batted just 3-for-14, but cranked two homers, scored four times and drove in a pair of runs.
Tennessee’s outfield rotated between six players this past week, but got steady production from all of them. Jordan Beck was the only outfielder to start all four games in the same position, and the consistency was beneficial to him, as he broke out of his slump. The right fielder hit two home runs, drove in a pair and scored five times.
Drew Gilbert enjoyed a nice weekend as the center fielder. He batted 5-for-15 and drove in five. On Sunday, Gilbert tied his career-high with four hits, going 4-for-6 with a double, two runs scored and three RBIs. For his efforts, Gilbert was named the SEC Newcomer of the Week.
Left field was where most of the rotation happened, as Evan Russell, Kyle Booker and Pete Derkay each started at least one game there this week. Tuesday’s left fielder, Russell went 0-for-1 with a walk, with substitution Booker getting a hit in two tries.
Booker started the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, and struck out twice in an 0-for-3. He came in for defense and made an error in the nightcap that led to an Aggie run. Booker flashed his potential in Sunday’s blowout, entering the game as a pinch runner and picking up two hits and three runs scored.
Derkay started the final two games against Texas A&M in left, and had three hits and two runs scored. On Sunday, Derkay hit his second home run of the season, a game-tying blast in the second inning, before Tennessee eventually broke away.
While a handful of guys saw time in the outfield, they were all productive. Gilbert and Beck broke out of their slumps and gave the Vols some much needed stability.
Russell started every game at DH for the Vols over the weekend, and he continued to mash the baseball at an incredible rate. He had five hits in the series and drove in eight runs. On Sunday alone, he hit a pair of three-run home runs, the first of which put Tennessee ahead in the seventh inning. Russell now has a team-high of 12 home runs.
Logan Steenstra, Jackson Greer, Christian Scott, Cortland Lawson, Trey Lipscomb and Ethan Payne all saw some assorted time off the bench, pinch hitting or otherwise. Lawson was the only one in that group to have a hit, though Steenstra did score a run Tuesday.
Jason Rackers started Tuesday’s game for the Vols, and impressed with 3.1 innings of one-run ball. His 3.1 innings was a new career-high, as was the four batters he struck out. The righthander has made a pretty good case to be a bullpen arm in an SEC weekend series.
Chad Dallas turned in his third consecutive start of seven innings in game one Saturday, with this one being one of his best efforts. He gave up just one run on five hits, walking none. He struck out five batters in the start, needing only 97 pitches.
Will Heflin could not follow up an amazing effort versus Vanderbilt with a quality start in game two Saturday. The lefthander surrendered two runs over 3.2 innings of work, his shortest start since March. After three shutout innings, Heflin allowed two runs in the fourth before he could get an out.
In the rubber game Sunday, freshman Blade Tidwell continued a recent stretch of disappointing outings with 4.1 innings and six earned runs. He had very little control, as he walked three and crossed up Pavolony a couple of times.
Since throwing 7.1 brilliant innings against Georgia in March, Tidwell has allowed multiple earned runs in each of his last five starts, and at least three runs in his last four, inflating his ERA from 1.65 to 4.26.
Dallas’ outing is doing a lot to keep this grade this high, because the other two weekend starts were flat out bad. Heflin, and particularly the talented freshman Tidwell, need to turn it around for Tennessee down the stretch to avoid a quick end to the season.
How about another inconsistent week from a very shallow bullpen? Tennessee used the same set of arms out of the pen, and though they were mostly effective, the flaws with that strategy started to peek through.
Sean Hunley worked 4.1 scoreless innings with four strikeouts between games one and three. He also went two innings and 28 pitches in Tuesday’s win. As good as he’s been, he has a team-high 17 appearances and leads the bullpen with 42.1 innings, nearly ten more than the next man. He has been the Vols’ go-to arm, but it will be a question how long he can sustain that workload.
Mark McLaughlin and Camden Sewell each tossed a shutout frame in relief in the nightcap of the doubleheader, sandwiching a poor outing from Kirby Connell.
The lefty allowed four of the first five men to reach in the seventh inning, including a two-run, game-tying double. The next batter hit a sac fly, which proved to be the winning run, and Connell was charged with his first loss of the year. Connell has given up four earned runs in both of the previous two weekends.
Finally, the last man used out of the pen was the lefthander Redmond Walsh, who worked 2.1 innings Sunday. It was an interesting move to bring him in with the Vols up by four, but Walsh, who had not worked in a week, recorded his 15th career save, moving him to third all-time in Tennessee’s saves list.
Despite an overall good performance, Tennessee’s bullpen has been a big question mark of late. Vitello continues to go with the same five arms in the weekend, and that approach is perfect, as Connell proved Saturday.
The Vols’ bullpen needs more depth in the weekends if they want to make any sort of deep run. Getting production from guys like Rackers, Will Mabrey or Elijah Pleasants, or at least giving them some opportunities, will make UT’s pen that much deeper, and I think, better.
But I’m just here to grade them.
Look, there’s some legitimate criticisms to be made with the Vols’ pitching, but it’s hard to ignore a 3-1 week. They took care of business against some weaker opponents and finally flexed an offense that was so highly touted entering the year.
Their power numbers have been way up of late, hitting 10 home runs in four games this week. It was the second week in a row the Vols have done accomplished that feat.
Tennessee is getting hot at the right time, and if the pitching issues are resolved in any positive manner, this team will be dangerous. They’re not No. 4 in the country for no reason.
Tennessee looks to carry its momentum into a four-game homestand, with a good possibility of a sweep. The Vols will host Lipscomb (13-22, 5-10 ASUN) Tuesday night before welcoming Kentucky (24-13, 9-9 SEC) in a Thursday-Saturday series.