Tennessee returned home to Lindsey Nelson Stadium after opening SEC play with a series win at Georgia, hosting a Eastern Kentucky team with wins over North Carolina and Louisville. The Vols jumped out to an early lead and poured it on in the middle innings as they coasted to a 13-5 win.
“I think roles are being solidified a little bit more,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “Guys are more comfortable in the role they’ve been designated to and if you’re not the closer, or Friday starter or right in the middle of the lineup and starting everyday you should want to improve your role. So I think we have some guys that are hungry to get even better.”
It didn’t take Tennessee long to get its offense going, scoring in the first inning for the fourth straight game.
Liam Spence led off the game with a single to left field and Max Ferguson followed it up with a walk to give Tennessee two baserunners with nobody out. Jordan Beck would ground out to second base to give Eastern Kentucky starter Brennan Kelly his first out, but the left hander wouldn’t be able to build on it as Drew Gilbert and Trey Lipscomb hit back-to-back doubles giving the Vols a 3-0 lead in the first.
The Colonels would quickly get one back in the second as Caleb Upshaw led off the inning with a no doubt homer to left field. Starter Jake Fitzgibbons would make it through the rest of the inning without giving up further damage. The freshman ended his first career start with two innings pitched, allowing one run, two hits and a walk while recording a strikeout.
Fitzgibbons would be replaced by Elijah Pleasants to start the third inning but it would be a short outing for the junior right hander. Pleasants faced just three batters, surrendering a walk, getting a fielder’s choice, throwing a pick off past the first baseman into right field and allowing a RBI single to pull the Colonels within one.
"Obviously we would have liked Elijah to have a clean inning," Vitello said. "He's just had some self doubt the last few times out. I know that. He knows that and it doesn't make any sense because he's such a hard worker and a good athlete."
LHP Zander Sechrist earned two strikeouts to get out of the third inning and after retiring the Colonels in order in the fourth inning, Tennessee’s offense went right to work, providing some breathing room.
Pete Derkay opened the inning with a triple and quickly scored on a wild pitch. Tennessee wasn’t done, however, as Jorel Ortega worked a walk and Kyle Booker doubled him home. After Booker took third base on a wild pitch, the Vols would get him home with a RBI sac fly from Max Ferguson.
The three-run fourth inning turned out just to be a teaser as the Vols would break the game open with a five hit, seven run fifth inning. The inning was highlighted by a pair of two-run homers, first a shot to left field from Lipscomb and then a pinch hit blast from Courtland Lawson.
“He threw me a first pitch slider and I heard coach V(itello) in the dugout say ‘hunt Omaha’,” Lipscomb said of his homer. “The Omaha sign is to the left of the scoreboard and I was thinking about that and going right center and it just went right into the barrel. Before that at-bat coach E(hlander) said this guy isn’t good against righties and find the barrel. I just got up there and did my thing.”
“Courtland Lawson has hit about three or four home runs his last at-bats in practice,” Vitello said. “You got to see what he’s been doing in practice today in the game.
The inning allowed Tennessee to distance itself from the Colonels, extending its lead to 13-2, as the Vols coasted the rest of the way.
Sechrist was excellent in 2.2 innings of relief, allowing just one baserunner while striking out four.
“Fitz’s (Fitzgibbons) first inning was extremely good,” Vitello said. “Zander was the guy that calmed the storm and showed people that he can pitch in high leverage situations.”
Eastern Kentucky would tally three runs in the eighth inning off of true freshman pitcher Shawn Scott, but the Colonels would never seriously cut into Tennessee’s lead.
The Vols will be back at home this weekend when they host No. 22 LSU to Lindsey Nelson Stadium for a three game series.