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BaseVols head to Lexington — Tennessee vs. Kentucky weekend preview: How to watch, impact players, matchups and more

The heated rivalry on the court and gridiron makes its way to the diamond

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The rivalry enters the white lines. The BaseVols head to Lexington to battle Kentucky for the 331st, 332nd, and 333rd time this Mother’s Day weekend, and the two teams couldn’t be moving any more in different directions.

How to Watch

Thursday 5/5: SEC Network @ 7 PM ET
Friday 5/6: SEC Network @ 6:30 PM ET
Saturday 5/7: SEC Network+ @ 2 PM ET

The Vols (41-4, 19-2) are coming off yet another series win in conference play, taking two out of three from 19th ranked Auburn while Kentucky (24-20, 7-14) lost its fifth straight series in SEC play, this time against Florida, and find themselves in last in the SEC.

As previously mentioned, this weekend will be the 331st through 333rd meetings between these two rivals dating all the way back to 1909, and the Vols hold the overall edge with 179 wins to 151 losses. Since the start of 2018, Tennessee has won seven of nine against Kentucky including a sweep their last trip to Lexington in 2019.

At the plate, Kentucky’s lineup revolves around two big bats: first baseman Jake Plastiak and third baseman Chase Estep. They are the only ‘Cats with 80-plus total bases, an OPS over .900, and 30-plus runs driven in. Both have 12 home runs on the season with no other Kentucky player hitting out more than five. Estep has an OPS 90 points higher than Plastiak’s, and his 13 stolen bases to just three times caught prove he’s a formidable baserunner as well.

Last Week’s Impact Players

Chase Burns: 5.0 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 9 K in 17-4 W
— Burns got himself into trouble in the third, surrendering a base hit and then walking the next two he faced, all with no outs. Naturally, he struck out the next three batters he faced, all with the slider, including Sonny DiChiara, one of the best hitters in the country. All nine of his strikeouts were via breaking balls (it seems we still don’t have a gauge on what’s his slider and what isn’t, but it’s range is 80-88 mph). Burns only had one clean inning, the first, but he did a great job working around trouble and really had the strikeout pitch going.

Jorel Ortega: 3-for-13 (.231), 2 HR, 5 RBI, 2 R, 1 K in series
— Ortega was swinging a hot bat in game one, cranking two home runs including the go-ahead grand slam in the seventh that sparked a 15-run rally over the final three frames.

Ortega added another moonshot in the bottom of the eighth, this time putting Tennessee up 12-4. The average wasn’t great for the series overall, but the power stroke was on full display. Of Ortega’s 46 hits this season, 24 have gone for extra bases and 11 have left the yard.

Vols Impact Players @ Kentucky

Evan Russell

— Russell’s bat had been slowly heating up ever since going hitless in the Vanderbilt series. He tallied exactly one hit in each game against Alabama and Missouri following that, and over the last two series against Florida and Auburn, he’s really begun to find the power we’ve seen from him. Prior to the Florida series, Russell tallied just two extra base hits over his past 12 SEC games.

Over the past two series, however, Russell has a pair of home runs and a pair of doubles, slashing .348/.407/.696/1.103 in that span. That’s fantastic production from your catcher, and against a Kentucky team that ranks within the bottom five in the SEC in team ERA (5.24), he’ll get a great chance to improve on those recent numbers.

Trey Lipscomb

— This feels like a great time to talk about the best bat in the Vols lineup all season long. Trey Lipscomb is chasing history. The Vols have had just four 20-plus home run hitters in a season. It was done most recently by Cody Hawn, who hit 22 home runs in 2009. Chris Burke hit 20 in 2001, Sonny Cortez holds the school record with 24 in 1998, and Rockies and Rocky Top legend, Todd Helton, mashed 20 in 1995.

The Vols played 68 games a season ago. Sitting at 45 right now, Lipscomb is hitting a home run every 9.33 at bats. He’s averaging 3.73 at bats per game. This puts Lipscomb on pace to reach 24 home runs by the Vols’ 60th game, which projects to be during the SEC tournament. It’s been a tremendous season for Lipscomb, and thus far, he’s been incredibly consistent. Here’s to hoping he sets the record in late May.

Probable Starters

After Chase Burns on Thursday night, your guess is as good as ours. Tony Vitello said Burns will take the bump to open the series, but after that, he was pretty vague. Drew Beam would feel like a lock considering how good he’s been this season, but with the Vols’ best strikeout man, Chase Dollander, returned from injury on Tuesday night, leaving the Vols with four starters to fit in three games. Obviously that can’t happen, but let’s look at how the four Tennessee starters have been doing thus far this year along with a couple relievers.

C. Burns: 56 IP | 2.09 ERA | 4.51 FIP | 1.071 WHIP | 32.75 K% | 9.17 BB% | 23.58 K-BB%
D. Beam: 63 IP | 2.14 ERA | 4.77 FIP | 0.698 WHIP | 21.79 K% | 4.70 BB% | 17.09 K-BB%
C. Dollander: 46.2 IP | 2.89 ERA | 3.23 FIP | 0.814 WHIP | 40.33 K% | 4.42 BB% | 35.91 K-BB%
B. Tidwell: 14 IP | 1.93 ERA | 2.39 FIP | 1.071 WHIP | 38.98 K% | 8.47 BB% | 30.51 K-BB%
C. Sewell: 34.1 IP | 18 app. | 2.88 ERA | 4.62 FIP | 0.932 WHIP | 18.94 K-BB%
W. Mabrey: 29.2 IP | 20 app. | 1.82 ERA | 3.07 FIP | 0.708 WHIP | 34.26 K-BB%
B. Joyce: 21 IP | 19 app. | 0.86 ERA | 3.01 FIP | 0.714 WHIP | 40.51 K-BB%
R. Walsh: 23.1 IP | 17 app. | 2.31 ERA | 4.00 FIP | 0.771 WHIP | 23.86 K-BB%

As for Kentucky, they don’t have a ton of consistency in their rotation. It’s not been a strong spot for them, their pitching hasn’t been altogether, but the Vols are likely to see lefty Mason Hazelwood on Thursday as he’s toed the rubber for the opening game of Kentucky’s weekend series lately.

Outside of Hazelwood, though, it’s a bit of a toss-up. Kentucky has six pitchers who have started four or more games this year. They don’t have a set weekend rotation largely because they just can’t find any consistency. Sean Harney leads the team in innings pitched and games appeared in, but he’s only started twice. Tyler Bosma has the lowest ERA (5.18) of Kentucky’s six pitchers with four-plus starts. Only Hazelwood has an ERA under 6.00 among the other five.

Kentucky has allowed 6-plus runs in six of their last 11 games. Their last three wins have seen terrific pitching, allowing either one or two runs in each. However, those performances have been few and far between.

Darren Williams and Tyler Guilfoil have been Kentucky’s best arms overall, both primarily coming out of the bullpen. Williams, however, is done for the season following Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL. He posted a 0.93 ERA on what was a terrific 2022 season cut short. It’s very much a committee type feel with this group. Twelve pitchers have 20-plus innings, and nobody has posted north of 50. Let’s look at some of their key arms.

M. Hazelwood: 23 IP | 9 app. | 5.48 ERA | 6.43 FIP | 1.478 WHIP | 8.57 K-BB%
T. Bosma: 33 IP | 5.18 ERA | 4.54 FIP | 1.606 WHIP | 20.26 K% | 9.80 BB% | 10.46 K-BB%
S. Harney: 44.2 IP | 11 app. | 2.82 ERA | 4.37 FIP | 1.119 WHIP | 17.10 K-BB%
T. Guilfoil: 31.1 IP | 16 app. | 1.72 ERA | 3.49 FIP | 0.957 WHIP | 36.36 K-BB%
D. Harper: 22 IP | 18 app. | 3.68 ERA | 6.34 FIP | 1.545 WHIP | 4.86 K-BB%
W. Hudepohl: 21.1 IP | 15 app. | 5.91 ERA | 7.15 FIP | 1.359 WHIP | 16.13 K-BB%
M. Moore: 18.1 IP | 15 app. | 4.42 ERA | 6.13 FIP | 1.582 WHIP | 9.30 K-BB%

Game one begins at 7 PM on THURSDAY on the SEC Network, so tune in and support the BaseVols as they look to extend their series winning streak to kick off May.