No. 1 baseball Tennessee won its second-to-last SEC series of the season over Georgia at home over the weekend, clinching an SEC championship in the process.
The Vols seemed to be back to normal, handling the Bulldogs soundly after a forgettable weekend at Kentucky the series before. Tennessee defeated Georgia 5-2 Thursday, 9-2 Friday and dropped Saturday’s game 8-3.
Here at three takeaways from Tennessee’s final home series of the regular season.
Changing the rotation
Head coach Tony Vitello went to a new pitching rotation this weekend, switching things up to get different pitchers some starts before postseason begins.
Tennessee started Chase Dollander on Thursday, Blade Tidwell on Friday and Ben Joyce on Saturday.
On Thursday, Dollander was dealing in his first start since suffering an elbow injury against Alabama in mid-April. Dollander went for six innings, allowing just three hits and one run, picking up six strikeouts.
Tidwell continued to solidify his place as a weekend starter, giving up just four hits and a run in Friday night’s game. He also picked up six strikeouts.
Joyce’s got his first career start on Saturday after waiting his turn as a reliever for most of the season. He was solid through his first three innings, not allowing any hits, but Georgia’s bats got going in the fourth and he gave up three runs and three hits. He picked up six strikeouts on the day.
Going to a new rotation this late in the season was strategic. When the Vols get to the postseason, they will likely see a lot of games in the span of just a few days. Tennessee’s pitching staff will need to be prepared with several starters available.
Giving Joyce, a player who has never seen a start at Tennessee, the nod on Saturday ensured that – when the time comes in the postseason – he will feel comfortable starting on the mound.
“It’s good to see that we have five to six starters now,” pitcher Kirby Connell said. “It’s going to really help us in the long run and the playoffs.”
Burke’s big night
Freshman designated hitter Blake Burke has emerged as a key player for Tennessee this season.
The Brentwood, California, native has quietly become one of the most consistent hitters on the team, sitting at a .397 clip in 58 at-bats. He has homered nine times and has the highest slugging percentage on the team with a .948 mark.
Though Burke’s performance has gone perhaps unnoticed in comparison to some of Tennessee’s big names in Jordan Beck, Trey Lipscomb and Drew Gilbert, his performance did not go unnoticed on Thursday.
Burke was the driving force in the win, going 3-4 at the plate with a pair of solo homers in the fourth and the seventh to give Tennessee a late three run lead.
Burke’s performance earned him his first SEC Player of the Week honors.
Vols clinch SEC championship
For most of the season, Tennessee has been a favorite, if not the favorite, to win the SEC. Tennessee met those expectations this weekend after all the right pieces fell into the place.
The Vols needed a couple of wins and a couple of losses from other teams to clinch the SEC championship outright this weekend, and they got what they needed.
After Tennessee won Friday night, Arkansas lost its series opener to Vanderbilt, giving the Vols the championship.
The SEC championship marks the first one from Tennessee since the 1995 season when Todd Helton guided the Vols to their third ever SEC championship.
“Just to see the growth year over year, it’s pretty exciting,” first basemen Luc Lipcius said. “Last year we had 20 SEC wins, we were at the top of the East. How could it get any better? And it did.”