After nearly a week since its last game and the players’ finals finally completed, the No. 5 Tennessee baseball team returns to action this weekend with a road trip to Missouri.
Tennessee has played some of its best, most complete baseball of late, getting production up and down the lineup. Head coach Tony Vitello credits the production to the team getting healthy, but more importantly, their mindset.
“Basically that balance of being focused and really getting after it the way we want out kids to play the game,” Vitello said on their mindset. “But also being loose, and playing it like it was their little league days, when things are simple, and you’re not worried about social media or what’s on the scoreboard . . . So I think when you got a healthy Tennessee roster, and that is the loose but focused approach they have to the game, then it’s really fun to be at the park.”
And that approach has paid off lately. The Vols took two of three games from Kentucky this past weekend, their sixth SEC series victory of the year. After falling behind early in game one, the Vols sparked a comeback with a seven-run second inning in a game they would win by ten runs.
Will Heflin gave the Vols a strong start on Saturday, but Kentucky scored six runs in the final three innings to take game two. In the finale, Blade Tidwell had a much needed bounce back start, and Redmond Walsh worked 3.2 scoreless frames to end the game as Tennessee won the rubber game.
Shortstop Liam Spence continued to play at a ridiculously high rate, going 7-for-13 with three runs scored, an RBI and three walks. He leads the SEC in batting average (.384) and 1.031 OPS is the best on the team, led by an on-base percentage well over .500 (.528). Spence has been “slump proof” all year, or at least as much as a baseball player can be. Vitello credits Spence’s success to the well-rounded player he is.
“He’s super well rounded,” Vitello said. “He’s athletic enough, he can bunt or beat out a six-hole ground ball. He’s got enough savvy and experience to put things into perspective, and not get caught up in the wrong things. He’s constantly working and also doing it in a way that he’s not wearing himself out or complicating things.”
Outside of Spence, guys like Jordan Beck and Luc Lipcius had productive weekends. Both players had endured a slump through most of April, but have started off the new month on the right foot. After having just seven hits in his previous nine games, Beck went 7-for-13 over the weekend with a three-run homer and two doubles. Lipcius homered in each game in the series, raising his season total to eight, well over his previous career-high of three.
All three of Tennessee’s starting pitchers were solid, as each allowed no more than three earned runs in their respective start. For the most part, a heavily-taxed bullpen was good too, with Sean Hunley allowing the only earned runs out of the pen in Friday’s loss. Walsh was especially dominant, striking out five in his outing.
The Vols’ focus is now on the first game against Mizzou and Friday starter Seth Halvorsen. The righty owns a 4-2 record, but also a 6.67 ERA in 11 starts for the Tigers. He has struck out 58 batters in 54.0 innings and has allowed 45 walks and 52 hits as well. Still. Halvorsen has great stuff and an ability to dominate, which he showed last week in a brilliant one-hit outing against Georgia.
“The buck kind of stops here when you’re talking about Friday’s game,” Vitello said. “Because their Friday starter is 94-98, and throws plenty of off-speed pitches as well, and throws them for strikes. You’re getting a true Friday matchup of guys with really of good stuff.”
As much as the Vols like to get on base, they should have no trouble against Halvorsen, or even Mizzou’s other two starters Spencer Miles and Zach Hise for that matter.
Hise has the lowest ERA among the group at 6.35 and gives up well over a hit per inning pitched. Miles owns a 7.04 ERA in 10 starts and opponents are batting .304 against him. And the Tiger bullpen does not get much better. Lukas Veinbergs has been their best option, with a 3.89 ERA in 16 appearances, but the staff still has a collective 7.34 team ERA.
Mizzou doesn’t offer much at the plate either. They have just one qualified player with an OPS north of .800, Torin Montgomery at .816. The first baseman also leads the team in homers (5) and RBIs (25).
The Vols know they can’t take a series off, even though they are tied with Vanderbilt for first place in the SEC East and Mizzou has the worst record in the division. For Vitello, each team is just too good to say the Vols have an easy series or the weekend off.
“Missouri has shown that they’re fully capable of beating anybody,” Vitello said. “When you get into our league, anything can happen, whether it be good, bad, back and forth good and bad. And they probably haven’t had as much luck go their way at times that they would like . . . But like most SEC games, it will probably come down to the nitty gritty.”