Gibson vs. UF Softball

McKenna Gibson, 24, rounds the bases in a win over Florida on March 24, 2023.

For the first time in 2023, the No. 3 Lady Vols lost a conference series, losing the last two games of the three-game set at Arkansas.

A strong pitching performance from Ashley Rogers saw Tennessee win Saturday’s series opener 3-1. On Sunday, a four-run sixth inning by Arkansas helped the Razorbacks defeat the Lady Vols 6-4. In Monday’s series finale, Arkansas pitchers Hannah Camenzind and Chenise Delce combined for a shutout in the rubber match, helping the Razorbacks to a 2-0 win to clinch the series.

Here are three takeaways from the weekend in Fayetteville.

Hitting streaky at times

The performance of the Lady Vol lineup let down the pitching this week, as Tennessee hitters only scored seven runs across the three games. The lineup as a whole could only muster a batting average of .211 while also drawing five walks.

This sort of performance is not completely out of the ordinary for Tennessee, as downball pitchers have provided issues for the lineup all year. Whether it was Alex Salter of Alabama, Madison Preston of Texas A&M or Dariana Orme of Baylor, the lineup struggled hitting against pitchers who had a strong mentality of throwing low in the zone. Reigning SEC pitcher of the year Chenise Delce was no exception, as she allowed only five earned runs in 11.1 innings of work.

As Tennessee moves into the postseason, the quality of pitching from the opposition will only improve. Hitting coach Chris Malveaux needs to continue to work with the Tennessee lineup and adjust, as he has done all year with great success.

Pitching by committee remains strategy

The days of Rogers pitching complete games twice each weekend are long gone, as the starting rotation of Rogers, Payton Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens has become concrete over the course of the season.

As was the case early in conference play, Rogers pitched the first game. Gottshall was the starter in game two, while Pickens closed the series, with Rogers available from the bullpen if necessary. This combination has worked well all season for the Lady Vols, and although Tennessee did suffer a series loss, pitching was by no means the issue.

Sporting three strong pitchers will be vital to the success of the Lady Vols in postseason play, as multiple games in short windows will force Tennessee’s pitchers to throw more innings than usual in the regular season.

SEC Championship, top eight seed still within reach

Even with the series loss, the Lady Vols still control their own destiny toward a first SEC regular season championship since 2007.

A series win against South Carolina would clinch the championship for the Lady Volunteers, while there are still paths to earning the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament based on the results of the Georgia vs LSU series in Baton Rouge.

After the series loss, the Lady Vols currently sit at No. 11 in the RPI, which similarly to the NET in basketball, is used by the tournament committee as the main basis for determining seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

A top-eight seed, which is still possible for Tennessee, would make the Lady Vols guaranteed hosts for the Super Regional round of the tournament, were they to advance past the regional round for the first time since 2019.

As Tennessee looks to make its first Women’s College World Series appearance since 2015, the difference between a super regional at home or the road could prove vital to an eighth appearance in Oklahoma City.

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