The pressure is on for Tennessee baseball (23-14, 5-10 SEC) heading into a fourth-straight top-five matchup against No. 4 Vanderbilt (29-8, 13-2).
Coming off a miserable weekend against Arkansas amidst a stretch where they have won just two SEC games in three weeks, the Vols are desperate for a signature win against their in-state foe.
“I think the pressure is to play with our best personality and best attitude,” head coach Tony Vitello said. “That needs to be defined by our, and when I say our I mean, it’s the time of year where they need to decide as much as the coaches — and of course we have to do our job — but what’s our best personality and how do we want to approach things.”
The pressure mounts even more following a midweek loss to Tennessee Tech. In its first non-Power 5 loss of the season, Tennessee gave up 12 runs and couldn’t come close to matching the offensive production of the Golden Eagles.
With a 3.65 team ERA, getting runs against Vanderbilt isn’t going to be an easy task for the Vols — especially considering their lack of offensive production during this recent stretch. Tennessee will have to continue leaning on its pitching, but even the Vols bread and butter has come up short recently.
In his first start of the season last week, junior right-hand pitcher Andrew Lindsey was decent, giving up just four hits in three innings. Lindsey collapsed in his final inning, but Vitello is counting on Lindsey to bounce back and be consistent in his second start.
“I think it’ll be a little more comfortable for Lindsey to get out there and not necessarily start, because he’s done that before and he wanted to be in that position, but to give you a full allotment of pitches,” Vitello said.
Chase Dollander and Drew Beam will once again be the Saturday and Sunday starters, respectively.
“Each of those guys knows what day they’re throwing and they prepare the way they want and go out there and compete the way they’re capable of,” Vitello said.
Chase Burns, who was Tennessee’s starter for most of the season before Arkansas, could be crucial coming out of the bullpen. Last week, Burns came on the mound for 5.1 innings on Sunday and gave up just one run. Though the Vols lost that game, Burns coming out of the bullpen brought a much-needed presence on the mound that helped the rest of the defense play relaxed.
“I think it’s brought a little bit of sense of relaxation to him,” Vitello said. “Whether it be outside influences, maybe even us, maybe himself putting extra pressure on himself to be perfect because his stuff is so good.”
This week, Burns has the option of coming out of the bullpen on multiple days.
“I think because he is so well conditioned – one thing we did up there to start the year, a conditioning challenge at the football indoor – he blew everybody out of the water,” Vitello said. “So, the guy has gone to great lengths to take very good care of himself and his arm. I think if two times is needed, he would be up to the task.”
However Tennessee chooses to approach pitching against Vanderbilt, the bottom line is that the Vols can’t afford another winless weekend. Tennessee has reached the midway point in the SEC season, and it needs to find the corner that it so desperately longs to turn.
“If you want to get excited, get excited about the fact that there’s just as many weekends left in the SEC as we have played,” Vitello said. “Fortunately we start all that off, and by that I mean the second half, here at home and Lindsey Nelson Stadium. I think there’s a little bit of drizzle for Saturday but otherwise I don’t see any weather that would discourage people from coming out and being rowdy.”
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