The No. 5 Tennessee baseball team dropped its series opener to No. 2 Vanderbilt in a 5-0 shutout Friday night. The Commodore’s starter, Kumar Rocker, shut out the Vols for just the second time this season, limiting them to a season-low two hits.
Here are three takeaways.
Vanderbilt entered this weekend matchup with the Vols after having lost its previous series to Georgia last weekend. Rocker in particular, who started the first game, struggled to the tune of six earned runs in five innings. He came in with fire in his eyes, bouncing back with one of his better starts this season.
“Last week, it went well for Georgia against him. The guy we watched on video was not the guy that was here tonight,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on Rocker’s improvement.
Rocker worked seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a walk, while striking out eight. He overmatched the Vols with his upper 90s fastball and a wicked curve.
“He’s a guy everyone knows his name at this point. He’s got good stuff,” Logan Steenstra said on Rocker. “He’s got a lot going for him . . . It’s not easy to hit. I don’t think we found enough barrels today in times we could’ve.”
The Vols’ best chance came against Rocker came in the third inning. With one out, Steenstra and Liam Spence reached on a hit by pitch and a walk, respectively. Rocker muscled up from there, however. He struck out Ferguson looking and got Jake Rucker to fly out to end the threat.
The Vols would get just two more runners on base after the third inning.
Dallas still had a quality night
Most nights, Chad Dallas’ start would have been good enough for the Vols to win. Unfortunately for him, he was matched up with possibly the top prospect in this year’s draft. Dallas pitched seven quality innings of his own and struck out seven, but he also allowed three runs.
Vanderbilt scored an unearned run in the second inning. Parker Noland doubled and came around to score on a fielding error by Steenstra. The next inning, Dallas made a mistake to Jayson Gonzalez, who drove a deep opposite field homer to right.
Dallas settled into a groove after the homer and even retired nine Commodores in a row, before giving up his second solo shot of the night to Carter Young in the sixth. Dallas, who consistently pounds the zone, liked the spot of the pitch despite the result.
“The second one, I actually, and me and (Connor Pavolony) talked about it afterwards, I thought it was a really good pitch,” Dallas said on the home runs. “It was a cutter, tried to be a back door cutter. It was kind of around the knees, maybe upper shin. Just tip your cap to the other guy on putting a really good swing on a pretty good pitch.”
Dallas started the seventh inning with two quick outs, before surrendering back to back hits that put two runners in scoring position. He induced a groundout to end the frame, finishing a quality outing in which he kept Tennessee in a good position to win.
For just the second time this season, the Vols lost their series opener. Tennessee had been 6-0 in the series openers before dropping its Friday game at Alabama, 7-4. The next day, the Vols responded with one of their more impressive wins, an 8-4, 11-inning victory, and took the finale as well.
“The bottom line is, they can’t be deflated,” Vitello said. “They need to show up tomorrow to play baseball. Again, that’s what went on in Tuscaloosa, so I don’t see a reason for that to change this weekend home in Knoxville.”
Vitello considers their response to adversity as one of the biggest strengths of this team. The Vols have plenty of confidence in themselves and their ability to win games, and it has shown thus far. The Vols don’t go down easy, they are 5-1 in games after a loss, and have dropped two contests in a row just once this year.
Still, they will have a daunting task ahead of them in Vanderbilt’s No. 2 starter Jack Leiter. He threw 20 consecutive hitless innings to open SEC play, and a good argument can be made that he is the best pitcher in college baseball.
In the face of that adversity, possibly the most they’ll face all season, the Vols remain confident. They will start Will Heflin against Leiter tomorrow at 4 p.m. ET, as they look to improve from tonight’s loss.
“I think one of our biggest pros, is that we’ve done pretty well with bouncing back, quick turnaround or not,” Dallas said. “Acknowledging what happened the previous night, and looking forward to make progress the next day . . . Acknowledge some things that happened, and focus on what we can do tomorrow to get a W.”