The last time that the Tennessee baseball team played an SEC opponent was on May 21, 2019, against Auburn. However, after waiting for over a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vols will hear the home plate umpire finally utter the famous words, “let's play ball,” before an SEC game. The No. 10 Vols (15-3) will travel to Athens, Georgia, on Friday to battle the No. 7 Bulldogs (13-3).
“I think they are ready,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “I don’t think they are giddy or anything like that. I think it is the same for everybody around the country. It is an exciting, yet eerie feeling cause here we are, this was the day it kinda stopped for everybody last year. To just be able to move on and get to the next thing is certainly a good feeling. I think for all SEC teams, you are gonna see an explosion of energy and passion for the game.”
In its last game, Tennessee defeated in-state rival ETSU on a walk-off three-run home run from Jordan Beck, his second homer of the day. His walk-off hit capped a 3-hit, 5-RBI day for the Vols. Max Ferguson continued his success at the plate with two hits, an RBI, and a run scored, despite striking out three times. Pete Derkay provided Tennessee with two hits and two runs in the two-hole.
Camden Sewell earned the start for Tennessee and was dominant through his first three innings. Things fell apart in the fourth as the third-year pitcher allowed three runs in the inning before exiting the game.
Connor Housley entered to relieve Sewell and struck out a career-high seven batters over a career-high three innings of work. Kirby Connell was the other big arm for the Vols out of the ‘pen. The lefty took home his first win of the season after striking out three batters over two innings of one-hit ball.
“Yeah, I like (our pitching) a lot,” Vitello said. “I think one big reason is that there are a bunch of different looks. Some guys throw differently than the guy they are handing the ball off to when they come out of the game. There is also an assortment of guys who have a really good experience and then you have the next category, where there are innings up for grabs because we haven’t yet solidified roles completely and we have guys banged up.”
“And (Jake Fitzgibbons) had to deal with COVID early,” Vitello continued. “So who is going to step into those roles? So you have these hungry new guys or guys who haven’t soaked up SEC innings yet and they are complementing some veteran guys in some really big situations. I think it’s a good blend for now.”
Georgia’s most recent game was a 3-2 victory over Lipscomb on Sunday, since its midweek match against Wofford was postponed due to rain. On Sunday, the Bulldogs needed 12 innings to defeat the Bison, but they were able to complete the series sweep after Connor Tate drilled the walk-off hit right up the middle.
The Bulldog’s pitching was untouchable for almost the entire series. The staff only gave up two runs as a whole, both were on Sunday. Overall, Georgia outscored Lipscomb 20-2 over the weekend.
The aforementioned Tate has been Georgia’s best hitter. The redshirt junior is slashing .410/.463/1.020 along with two home runs and 13 RBI, which ranks second on the team. Catcher Corey Collins is hitting .364 with team-highs in doubles (4), walks (8), home runs (4), RBI (16) and OPS (1.110).
“I think they are like our team,” Vitello said. “So for us, and them, I think there is a much more balanced field. You may not know some of these names as household names, but from recruiting, a lot of them look very familiar. Also, playing against a guy like Cole Tate, who has their best number offensively and he has been there for quite some time. Then there are new faces like Collins, who were premier guys from the recruiting scene that are now getting their action. So they are now becoming those names that get hyped up by the end of the year or for a match-up another time.
Starter Ryan Webb has been the ace of Georgia’s staff. The lefty hasn’t allowed a run in three starts and has struck out a team-high 19 batters. Darryn Pasqua has a 1.46 ERA in seven appearances out of the bullpen. He is second on the team in strikeouts (18) and hasn’t allowed a walk in 12.1 innings.
“It is a little more balanced of a club,” Vitello said on Georgia. “But I think we are too. I think they can show you a lot of different looks on the mound cause they have a bunch of lefties. They do some different things offensively as they don’t just rely on two or three guys to wail away.”
The last time these two teams met was for a three-game series between April 11-13 back in 2019. The Vols took two out of three games against the No. 2 Bulldogs, shutting them out in the first two games, 2-0 and 3-0, respectively and dropping Game three, 7-1.
Game one is on Friday at 6 p.m. in Athens, Georgia. Game two is on Saturday and will be played at 1 p.m. First pitch for the series finale will be at 1 p.m. on Sunday.