Evan Russell- baseball

KNOXVILLE, TN - March 27, 2021 - Evan Russell (6) during the game between the LSU Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

The No. 5 Tennessee baseball team will look to win its fifth SEC series of the season against No. 2 Vanderbilt at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend. The Vols are 28-6 overall, including a 9-3 SEC record, while the Commodores sit at 26-5 with a 9-3 SEC record.

“I think our team is stronger, having survived our trip to Western Carolina,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “It came with a ton of different challenges, but we had a lot of different contributors . . . If we are playing our best ball, we can win more games than we have already won. As far as Vanderbilt is concerned, it all starts with their No. 1 starter. Rocker will take the mound and lead the way and arguably, a guy who is just as good, will go the next day. They have a bunch of special arms that are complemented by several well-rounded baseball players.”

The Vols enter the weekend after winning their weekend series against then-No. 12 Florida and their midweek matchup against Western Carolina.

In game one, Chad Dallas went 7.0 innings, giving up four runs (three earned), while striking out 11 in Tennessee’s 6-4 win. Evan Russell swung the big bat of the day for the Vols, going 3-4 with three RBI, including a double and a home run. Liam Spence set the tone in the leadoff spot with two hits, a walk, an RBI and a run scored in his team’s 6-4 win.

On Saturday, the Vols were picked up by their bullpen after Will Heflin gave up three runs over 3.2 innings of work. Mark McLaughlin and Kirby Connell combined to go 5.1 innings, surrendering just a run, while striking out eight batters. Tennessee tallied just four hits, but that’s all they needed. Jordan Beck, Luke Lipcius and Connor Pavolony recorded three of those hits in the sixth inning and they all drove in runs, helping secure a 5-4 victory for the Vols.

Tennessee was unable to secure the sweep on Sunday as Florida’s bullpen was just too good. The Vols touched Gator starter Hunter Barco for four runs (two earned) over 4.0 innings of work, including two more runs off of Ryan Cabarcas who entered in relief. However, they couldn’t touch Christian Scott who twirled a one-hit ball game over 4.2 innings, along with six strikeouts. On the opposite side, Sean Hunley gave up three runs, eventually spelling the end for the Vols as they earned the 7-6 loss.

Vanderbilt comes to Knoxville after losing their first home SEC series since April 27-29 in 2018, which was against South Carolina. This weekend, they lost two games against Georgia, 14-2 in game one and 9-1 in game three, however, they won on Saturday 5-2.

Kumar Rocker started on the bump for the Commodores. Their ace struck out 12 batters but lasted just 5.0 innings after serving up six earned runs. Vanderbilt mustered just two runs off of eight hits, as they left 15 runners on base.

Saturday’s affair was a more normal Vanderbilt outing. Jack Leiter threw 7.0 solid innings, allowing just one run off of three hits and struck out 13 Bulldogs. Parker Noldan drove in three runs off of a homer to left field. Jack Bulger joined in on the action with two hits, two runs and an RBI.

Vandy was unable to close out the weekend with a win as its pitching struggled to keep runners off base and their bats went ice cold. Patrick Reilly earned the game three start but lasted just 3.0 innings after surrendering three runs. Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Jayson Gonzalez each tallied two hits and Carter Young drove in their lone run. Overall, they finished with just eight hits, left seven runners on base and struck out 12 times.

“I wish I had a copy of the movie before it was even released,” Vitello said. “The end of the weekend will kind of tell you that. We don’t have any control over Georgia causing this or that, it’s the nature of the league. There is interesting timing that goes on with each opponent during the 10 weeks. The bottom line is that we are home this weekend, which we feel is an advantage for us and we are playing a team that when they are at their best, they are as good as anybody in the country. But at the same time, it is the sport of baseball and to be flawless throughout nine innings, no matter who you are is very, very challenging.”

It is worth noting that both Tennessee and Vanderbilt won both of its midweek matchups. The Vols won 14-12 against Western Carolina and Vandy defeated Eastern Kentucky, 6-4 on Tuesday night.

Tennessee’s top performers include ace Chad Dallas who has a 4.20 ERA over seven starts this season. He leads the Vols in wins (five) and strikeouts (60). True freshman Blade Tidwell is off to a great start to his collegiate career. He has a 2.91 ERA along with 43 punch-outs over a team-high 43.1 innings.

Liam Spence, a top candidate for SEC Player of the Year, owns team-highs in average (.405), on-base percentage (.538), slugging percentage (.568), hits (45), runs (35) and triples (two). No. 3-hole hitter Jake Rucker is slashing .336/.428/.516 with four home runs and a team-high 66 total bases.

Vanderbilt is led by the prospective No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the 2021 MLB draft, Rocker and Leiter, respectively, according to ProspectsLive.com. Despite his rough outing against Georgia, Rocker has a 1.88 ERA to his name over eight starts. He’s thrown 48.0 innings allowing just 27 hits and 14 walks compared to 73 strikeouts.

Leiter has been even better. The righty has a 0.55 ERA and a 7-0 record. In 49.0 innings pitched, he’s allowed just 13 hits, five runs (three earned) and 19 walks, in contrast to 84 strikeouts. He also threw a no-hitter against South Carolina in his first SEC game this season.

The Commodores have six of their starting nine batters hitting over .300 through this year. Dominic Keegan is leading the pack by slashing .391/.481/.739 with 10 doubles, six home runs and 27 runs scored. Bradfield Jr. leads the team in stolen bases, as he’s converted 21-of 22 attempts, thanks to a .429 on-base percentage.

The series starts on Friday with first pitch at 7 p.m. ET.

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