Baseball vs Miss St.

Cal Stark (30) bats against Mississippi State at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Thursday April 27, 2023.

Tennessee baseball has grown its reputation in recent years. The Vols have become known for the long ball, cranking home runs routinely out of Lindsey Nelson Stadium. 

Kentucky, on the other hand, is known for the opposite: small ball. The almost-extinct playstyle has given the Wildcats a lot of success this season. Kentucky sits at No. 1 in the RPI rankings, and No. 17 in the D1Baseball rankings. 

“A good club,” head coach Tony Vitello said on Thursday. “No. 1 in the country if you’re going to go off of RPI standards, which obviously carries a lot of weight, so, again, first in the country in that category and therefore in our league, too. A team that will have some familiar faces, but just like every year in our league with the draft and everything else, a lot of turnover.”

Kentucky has stolen an SEC-high 77 bases while laying down another SEC-high 48 sacrifice bunts. The next closest is Vanderbilt with 18 sacrifice bunts.

High strikeout numbers have become routine in today’s game, but not for Kentucky. The Wildcats have struck out just under 400 times this season. They also sit second in the SEC for on-base percentage at .428.

Tennessee will have its hands full trying to slow down Kentucky on the base paths. The Vols have only caught 15 of the 120 attempted runners.

“I think it’s circumstantial," Vitello said. "On the whole, it’s a topic that you bring up for good reason. But I think it’s circumstantial. What's going on with the score, who is up at the plate and who do we have on the mound with what the count is and stuff like that. You want to know who is on the bases and want to approach it carefully going over that way. We have talked about it and gone over stuff to prepare."

The play style is a far cry from Tennessee. The ball club in orange has hit 103 home runs this season, tying it for first in the SEC. Kentucky sits at the bottom of the SEC with just 33 bombs.

For Vitello’s squad, the 103 mark makes back-to-back seasons with over 100 home runs. The Vols barely missed the mark in 2021, hitting 98.

“At the end of the day, the stat you would like to have more than anything is a win,” Vitello said. “When you’re able to drive the ball for extra-base hits whether it be home runs or doubles or triples, you put yourself in a good position, and I think our ballpark has been friendly to us as has other places. The combination of Coach Elander getting guys to swing the bat in the cage the way that he used to, and then Coach Q (Quentin Eberhardt) in the weight room, is a pretty good combo.”

A season ago, Kentucky proved to be the Vols' lone SEC series loss. Tennessee has struggled through the SEC slate this season while the Wildcats have thrived. With the tables turned in 2023, the penultimate SEC series is more crucial than ever.

Tennessee is 30-4 at home, and seeking to solidify their postseason seeding against Kentucky. The series kicks off Friday at 6:30 p.m. EST.

“I think it’s the game that is in front of you," Vitello said. "This team has its own theme. This season has written part of its story to this point... What is the thing in front of you? We probably had the best coach in the country talking about being where your feet are in Pat Summitt. So, I would listen to her before I listen to me if I were one of our players.”

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