Merritt vs. Kentucky

Griffin Merritt (#10) hits one of his two home runs in a win over Kentucky on May 12, 2023.

Tennessee baseball opened its final regular home series with a dominant 10-6 win over Kentucky on Friday.

The Vols (34-16, 13-12 SEC) went back above .500 in SEC play with the win over the Wildcats (34-13, 14-11) and continued their power surge with five home runs on the night. Three of those homers came with at least one runner on base.

For the second straight season and third time in program history, Tennessee has eclipsed the 100 home run mark and currently sits at 108.

Griffin Merritt stole the day with a pair by himself and he finished the day as the leading home run hitter on the season for the Vols with 16, leaping past fellow slugger Blake Burke who has 15. 

“I hope that's the same thing towards the end of the year but I don't want to mouth off to Blake right now he can kind of put me in the dust pretty quick,” Merritt said. “I just felt good at the plate. I felt good the last couple of weeks and just going out there and executing and you know, trying to put good swings on the ball and if they go, they go.” 

Christian Moore kicked things off with a solo homer in the second, and Tennessee later exploded in the third inning after Kentucky tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the frame. Maui Ahuna opened with a walk, and Hunter Ensley sent him home with a 440-foot home run over the left field deck.

Jared Dickey then stepped up to the plate just two pitches later and blasted a solo shot over the right field wall as part of a career-high tying three hits. He had a bunt single later on as well as one up the middle in the fourth inning.

“He's a hitter. That's why we recruited him, that's what he is,” Vitello said. “He has good ability to hit, and like Andrew Lindsey and like our team, he has kind of settled in to play ball and not worry about all this other riff raff. ‘I’m in on this at-bat right,’ and he’s pretty talented when he does that. And also, he brings a lot of character to the table.”

Kentucky starting pitcher Travis Smith entered the game having allowed just two home runs on the year, but the Vols had already gotten three by the time he left the game in the third, when three runs had been scored before an out was recorded.

“That was the game. We didn’t have anything strategy wise or anything that really stood out,” Vitello said. “Obviously you get to this point, you’ve got plenty of statistics to go off of and the guys watch video or stuff like that. He’s good. He’s good. And he’s a tough kid. He’s been through a lot, but our guys for whatever reason were really dialed in against what he was doing and made it challenging on him.

Merritt later doubled that total after a walk and a single put two runners on with no outs and blasted one to the left field deck, making it a 7-1 ball game.

Cal Stark then finished off the inning with an RBI-double.

Boasting a seven-run cushion heading into the fifth, the Wildcats finally got the best of starter Andrew Lindsey as Devin Burkes homered off him to right center. 

However, Tennessee fired right back by way of its fifth and final homer as well as Merritt’s second homer of the night.

The Vols had responses all night for anything thrown their way — something that has been a growing theme as the season has progressed and something that was lacking early on. 

Tennessee will look to roll over the offensive firepower into Saturday for a potential series clincher. First pitch is set at 12 p.m. EST.

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