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. 6 Tennessee baseball team played a thrilling week of baseball, after defeating Western Carolina 9-2 off the backs of two freshmen on Tuesday and then taking 2-of-3 against Alabama in a tough weekend set. The Vols improved to 24-5 overall and 7-2 in the SEC to start week four of conference play.

Here is how the Vols graded out position by position.

Infield

Tennessee saw nice production from multiple infield positions against Western Carolina.

Max Ferguson did record a hit in Tuesday night’s affair, but he did reach base three times by walking and even scored a run. Jake Rucker manned the hot corner and clubbed a three-run homer to put the game away late. Logan Steenstra tallied a hit and a walk at the bottom of the order.

Pete Derkay and Luc Lipcius slotted in at catcher and first base, respectively. Both players combined to go 0-5 with a walk and a run scored.

The Vols’ infield produced on both sides of the offensive spectrum in their weekend series against Alabama.

Rucker was the big bat for Tennessee all weekend. The third baseman slashed .400/.400/.600, including three doubles. Steenstra played shortstop in games two and three and filled in admirably for Liam Spence. The sophomore recorded two doubles and a triple in eight at-bats. Finally, Lipcius found his groove against the Tide and tallied four hits, including a homer and three walks.

Connor Pavolony and Ferguson were this weekend's biggest strugglers. Pavolony was slightly better with a .222 average and a .417 on-base percentage. Ferguson couldn’t buy a hit as the second baseman went 1-for-11 with six strikeouts.

Tennessee’s infield held three of the top five offensive performances over the weekend and mostly everyone contributed to the team’s win on Tuesday night. The unit was able to stick with it against a pesky Alabama team that had solid outings from their starters and bullpen.

Grade: B+

Outfield

Kyle Booker turned in a career night on Tuesday against the Catamounts.

The Vols’ true freshman recorded a career-high three runs and two hits, including his first-career home run, and a career-tying three RBIs. Evan Russell continued his success from the LSU series and swatted a solo shot over the outfield wall. Drew Gilbert manned left field and went 0-4, including a strikeout at the plate.

Head coach Tony Vitello went back to basics for his outfield alignment with Jordan Beck in right, Gilbert in center and Russell in left over the weekend.

Beck was the best of the trio, slashing .455/.533/.545 with a double, four RBI and two runs. Gilbert was next after a 3-for-10 weekend and a .533 on-base percentage. Russell lagged far behind with a .125 average and five strikeouts.

Two-thirds of the outfield was addicted to getting on base and scoring runs. Russell, despite a career performance last week, regressed back to his season averages. However, they all played important roles in the Vols’ two wins against the Tide.

Grade: B+

DH/Bench

Tennessee’s bench came alive in the midweek matchup, with four of the five replacements reaching base.

Cortland Lawson recorded a hit and a run. Christian Scott and Ethan Payne each tallied a hit in one plate appearance. Trey Lipscomb reached base twice on two base-on-balls. Jorel Ortega was the lone bench bat to not reach base, as he went 0-for-3 with a punchout. Beck got some rest at designated hitter and finished 1-for-2 with a run scored.

Spence took over for Derkay at the DH spot and was lights out for most of the weekend, along with some other bench bats.

Spence finished Sunday’s rubber match going 2-for-2 with two runs scored, an RBI and three walks in their win. He also played well on Saturday, after finishing with a hit and two walks.

Derkay came off of the bench and tallied a hit and an RBI, while Russell came in to pinch hit for Booker and walked in the game-winning run.

The DH and bench positions for the Vols this past week were productive in every game. Multiple players reached base, some drove in runs and others helped to secure wins. Together, they all helped to win ball games.

Grade: A

Pitching

Jake Fitzgibbons, another true freshman, turned in a career day on the mound for the Vols in the game against Western Carolina.

The lefty tossed 3.1 innings of one-hit ball and struck out four to earn his first career win. Mark McLaughlin started on the bump for Tennessee and allowed just a run on zero hits and three strikeouts over 2.1 innings. Redmond Walsh closed the game down in the ninth by allowing just one hit and punching out two.

It was a disappointing weekend for Tennessee’s starting veteran and rookie pitcher against Alabama.

Game one starter Chad Dallas lasted just 3.2 innings after giving up three runs, five hits and walking two. Blade Tidwell, who started game three, finally struggled in an SEC game. The freshman tossed 5.1 innings despite allowing five runs (four earned) off of nine hits while striking out five.

However, not everything was doom and gloom with Tennessee pitching. Will Heflin, Kirby Connell and Camden Sewell stepped up when their team needed them.

Helfin took the mound for game two and twirled a six-hit one-run outing over 5.2 innings of work. In the same game, Sewell led the Vols through extras to earn the win after going 3.2 innings and allowing just one hit and a walk over that time. Connell played a major role in the team’s rubber-match victory. The sophomore allowed three runs (one earned) on just two hits compared to five strikeouts over 3.0 innings of work.

While Dallas’ struggle to open the series was surprising, Tidwell’s rough outing wasn’t, given his age and experience. With that being said, Tennessee should be very encouraged that its bullpen depth can salvage any abbreviated outing for the starters. This weekend showcased that.

Grade: A-

Overall

A week when you go 3-1 is a good week in anyone’s book, especially in a scrappy and tough SEC.

The Vols took care of business on Tuesday night against Western Carolina in a night that put a spotlight on up-and-coming freshmen who will be in the Vols’ future and hopefully current plans.

The weekend series against Alabama proved that the SEC is tough, no matter who Tennessee is against. The Vols showed that they can pick up any one of their starters if they exit earlier than they expect. They also had two big bats, Beck and Lipcius, come alive when they had been on a cold streak as of late.

All of these things are a promising sign entering a week that holds another midweek match against Eastern Kentucky at home and a weekend series against No. 15 Florida at Lindsey-Nelson Stadium.

Grade: A-

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