Vols Baseball vs ETSU
Tennessee's Evan Russell with a swing against ETSU at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

The Vols are about to enter what could be their most challenging week of the year.

The No. 6 Tennessee baseball team is set to host Florida in its fourth weekend conference series. The No. 12 Gators will be the highest-ranked opponent the Vols have faced at this point in the season.

Tennessee has been on fire as of late, winning 10 of 12 games since starting conference play. The Vols are coming off of a series win at Alabama last weekend and a 10-1 rout off Eastern Kentucky Tuesday night.

Despite not playing their best baseball, the Vols took two of three from Alabama last weekend, winning the second two games of the series. Friday starter Chad Dallas and Sean Hunley were uncharacteristically bad, combining for six earned runs in the loss.

Tennessee would take the next two games, as Will Heflin lifted his team Saturday with his best start of the year and the offense just edged by the Crimson Tide in Sunday’s rubber match.

While the pitching grinded its way to some success, the Vols’ bats left plenty to be desired. Sure, they scored 21 runs, which is the most they’ve scored in an SEC series, and they did rally on both Saturday and Sunday, but against an Alabama pitching staff that has a 6.00 ERA in conference play, they could have done much more.

The most glaring issue for the Vols was the 31 runners left on base against Alabama — by far the highest total from one series. They went 7-for-35 with runners in scoring position. Jordan Beck had a particularly rough series, leaving eight men on base, including six on Saturday alone.

Capitalizing on any baserunners they get will be the most important area for the Vols this weekend against a Florida team that was ranked No. 1 in the SEC preseason polls.

While the Gators certainly haven’t lived up to their expectations entering the season — they are currently tied for fourth at 5-4 in the SEC East — they’re still a very good team. As Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello put it, “The preseason No. 1 ranking isn’t just handed out to anyone, it’s there for a reason.”

Florida has announced two of its starters for the weekend, righthander Tommy Mace for Friday and lefty Hunter Barco on Sunday, with Saturday to be determined. Mace has started six games for the Gators, pitching to a 2.54 ERA and a 4-0 record. He strikes out 12.5 batters per nine innings while walking just 1.6 per nine.

Barco has started the most games for the Gators but hasn’t duplicated his success from a year ago, in which he posted a 1.40 ERA. In 2021, Barco has gone 4-2 with a 5.30 ERA, striking out 45 in 35.2 innings. He has surrendered the most hits, earned runs and home runs of any Gator pitcher.

Their bullpen has been solid as well. Franco Aleman, Brandon Sproat and Christian Scott have each made double-digit appearances out of the pen and have been quite good, all with an ERA at 3.57 or lower.

“Those arms are so good down there, they just need to find a way to scratch out a few runs and they feel like they are in a good spot,” Vitello said, on Florida’s pitching. “They’re looking for their best combination of ball, as are we.”

Florida will roll out one of the conference’s better lineups, led by freshman Nathan Hickey. He’s slashed .369/.485/.641, all of which are team-highs. Hickey is second on the team with six home runs and also leads with 34 RBIs. A former high school All-American, Hickey has played up to his potential and hasn’t cooled off in his first SEC experience.

Jacob Young, Colby Halter and Sterlin Thompson have given Florida steady production, particularly with getting on base. All three players reach base at .389 or higher while batting .291 or higher. Sophomore Jud Fabian leads Florida in the power department with a team-high 10 home runs. The Gators can certainly score, averaging 7.0 runs per game — just a tick behind Tennessee’s 7.2.

This weekend will be the biggest test the Vols have faced this season, one where they can prove they are a legitimate contender. Tennessee leads all of college baseball with 25 wins and is now ranked as high as No. 4 to 6, depending on which poll you look at.

Still, the Vols have had well-documented inconsistencies and this would be a perfect opportunity to prove any doubters wrong, especially as the gauntlet continues with a series against the current No. 1 Vanderbilt next weekend. By that time, we should know a great deal more about where exactly Tennessee fits into the tight SEC East race.

“We’re welcoming the preseason No. 1 team in the country to our home field,” Vitello said. “And it’s also a team that has won a recent national championship. Their roster is littered with guys who turned down big money to go to school. And all of those things make for a competitive challenge for our guys this weekend.”

First pitch on Friday is set for 6:30 p.m. ET, with Chad Dallas (4-0, 4.28) set to start for the Vols.

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