Tony Vitello and the Tennessee baseball team are likely to be victims of of their own recent success, as some folks online were already hitting the panic button when the Vols lost to Arizona (3-1) on Friday and Grand Canyon University (4-3) on Saturday before shutting out UC San Diego 7-0 on Sunday.
Other than the Tennessee’s fans’ just run-of-the-mill, never-ending cynical stasis, there certainly were aspects of the 1-2 trip that I can see why a Vol fan might be concerned, despite being three games into a 50/60 game season.
But, we’ve also watched Vitello lose production, reload and be a better team the next season. In 2020, the team was relatively young, but that’s when the seeds were sewn for the 2021 year. That team finished 40-21 amongst the COVID shutdown and had three players drafted: Garrett Crochet, who was drafted 11th overall and the only prospect out of that class to skip the minors entirely and go straight to the White Sox parent club; Alerick Soularie got drafted in the second round and outfielder Zach Daniels went in the fourth round. This season is when names like Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert started popping up on the roster.
Then, in 2021, the Vols went 50-18 and made it to the College World Series, but they got ousted in the first weekend after two consecutive losses to Texas and eventual CWS winner, Virginia. The Vols had seven players drafted in the ‘21 draft, including most of the infield and their Friday-night starter, Chad Dallas.
2022, though, it was special. The Vols went 57-9, won the regular season SEC Championship the SEC Tournament, set numerous offensive records behind a pitching staff that consisted of almost exclusively All-American freshmen starters and had 10 players drafted, including Gilbert in the first round.
So I think it’s fair to expect this year’s team to be good, but please do not hold it to last year’s standard, and please don’t be upset that the team dropped its first two games of the year.
Something worth noting, before we get into each of the games, neither transfers Maui Ahuna (SS) nor Griffin Merritt (OF), both Players of the Year in his respective conferences last season, were available for the first two games. Ahuna is apparently battling an eligibility issue for which there is no official timetable that’s been given on when it’s expected to be resolved. Merritt had to finish out a two-game suspension that occurred at the end of last year. I don’t even want to get into what a big deal the Ahuna thing is, because he’s a projected first-round pick who hit .396 at Kansas last season.
Wildcat fans have had this one circled on their calendars for some time. They’re fresh off evening up the hoops’ home-and-home series, with a 75-70 win in AZ that had its fair share of, let’s say, competitive fire.
All the hoopla regarding Chase Dollander as the best pitching prospect to come out of college since Stephen Strasburg didn’t help, as we all know that gave the Wildcats something extra to prove. Dollander ended up with seven Ks in just 4.2 innings, but he also gave up a home run, two other earned-runs and threw just 47 of his 81 pitches for strikes. He really struggled with his command all evening. I’d chalk it up to being just a little too juiced up for the game, but that’s just my stance on the matter.
doe gets outs of a bases-loaded jam with a K pic.twitter.com/A7CvBiwArK— RockyTopTalk (@RockyTopTalk) February 18, 2023
Unfortunately, the offense offered Dollander no help and combined for six hits total, with two coming from Blake Burke. Leadoff hitter Jared Dickey went 0-5 and stranded three runners.
It’s going to be an adjustment for Burke and Christian Moore, last year’s dynamic freshmen, as they morph into middle-of-the-lineup guys instead of just kids coming in and hitting dingers on a historically prolific offensive team.
We finally got a look at last year’s Missouri transfer Seth Halvorsen in a long-relief appearance. Halvorsen went three innings and gave up four hits but only allowed the one run. 33 of his 49 pitches went for strikes, and he struck out three. He showed the low-to-mid 90s fastball, a slider and a pitch that I’m not sure if it’s a sinker or a splitter. But he’s going to be a weapon for the staff this season.
Hitters four, five and six — Zane Denton, Kyle Booker and DH Logan Chambers — combined to go 1-9 with six strikeouts. That ain’t gonna get it done.
Since Dollander started the first game, that meant we got our first look at last year’s D1 Baseball’s Pitcher of the Year, Chase Burns. Burns gave up a one-out walk in the first inning and then a triple to the next batter but managed to get out of the inning with the one-run, minimal damage. Against GCU, we saw more of what we saw last year — the fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 90s and a devastating slider that makes hitters look silly as they try to guess what’s coming.
Chase Burns (‘24 elig.) limits the damage to just 1 run in the 1st. Showcasing power stuff. FB sitting 95-98 mph on a downhill plane. Pair it w/ tight SL at 83-86 mph (2500+ rpm). Potential top selection in next year’s draft @Vol_Baseball pic.twitter.com/KHO6d3SRSH— PG College Baseball (@PGCollegeBall) February 19, 2023
Tennessee’s offense finally showed a bit of life in the fourth and fifth innings, scoring two in the fourth and one in the fifth to make it a 3-1 game. In the fourth, Burke and Moore both struck out swinging, but Denton singled and Stark hit the team’s first home run of the season. The Vols managed nine hits but stranded six runners — three by Stark. Stark giveth, and Stark taketh away. Winter is coming.
In the top of the 5th, Jared Dickey hit a triple, and C-Mo got him home with a single. But that was the last run the offense scored in the game.
Burns came out to start the bottom of the 5th and got the first guy out. But then he gave up a double, allowed that runner to make it to third on a wild pitch and then hit the GCU batter. A sac-fly made it a 3-2 game, and Vitello brought in lefty Kirby Connell to get the final out of the inning.
Vitello went to newbie Andre Lindsey in the 6th, a guy who has lots of folks excited about his potential. But Lindsey gave up runs in the 6th and 7th innings, walked three batters and got tagged for the loss as the offense just couldn’t get anymore runs across the plate.
UT had something going in the 8th, when Denton led off with a walk and freshman pinch-hitter Dylan Dreiling singled into right field. But Denton tried to make it to third on a Dreiling’s ball that was hit into shallow right field, and Denton he was easily gunned out at third to end the inning. Errors from Burke (we’re gonna really miss Luc Lipcius’ glove at first this year), Charlie Taylor and RS sophomore Austen Jaslove (playing SS while the Ahuna mess gets sorted) throughout the game obviously didn’t help matters either.
Against GCU, we saw a base-running mistake and defensive errors cost us, when, last year, a lot of those flubs got glossed over by the “ping,” of a metal bat blistering a ball out of LNS Field for a home run and a possibly shattered windshield. This team likely won’t have that luxury, and those sorta mental foibles will 100 percent cost UT games this year if it doesn’t figure them out.
UC SAN DIEGO
So the long trip West wasn’t all for naught, as Drew Beam tossed six innings of three-hit ball and didn’t allow a run or a walk while striking out six. Aaaand, yay, the offense backed him up with 10 hits and seven runs (though they still stranded seven runners on base).
Beam started last season strong and faded toward the end, as the rigors of a college baseball season no doubt took its toll on his stamina. Especially considering his last two seasons of HS ball were mostly tossed out due to COVID and an injury.
But against UCSD, Vol fans saw the early-season version of last year’s Beam, with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and fantastic command around the corners of the plate. He faced just two batters over the minimum through six innings and threw 60 of his 84 pitches for strikes.
The Vols used five relievers to get through the next three innings, including some familiar names, like Zander Sechrist and Ben Joyce’s little brother, Zack Joyce, plus some not-so-well-known guys like transfers Aaron Combs and Bryce Jenkins. The battery surrendered three hits and two walks but no runs.
Offensively, the Vols didn’t get going until the 4th when Burke hit a triple that Denton plated with a single to right three pitches later. Then, Cinci transfer Griffin Merritt got welcomed to life as a Vol by being hit by a pitch. Merritt and Denton advanced to second and third, respectively, on a UCSD error that eventually turned into a sac-fly RBI for Kyle Booker.
The bats went down quietly in the 5th, but Blake Burke’s first home run of the season in the 6th gave the Vols a 3-0 lead with just nine outs remaining for an UCSD come back. He just hammers this ball over the fence in left-center. It’s just good, ol’ fashioned fun watching him hit baseballs like he’s trying to get gold medallions out of a piñata without wearing the blindfold.
"Somebody's got the coat ready for him."— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 19, 2023
Blake Burke goes yard for @Vol_Baseball in the MLB Desert Invitational.
Watch LIVE: https://t.co/nT9MkMQkY7 pic.twitter.com/D68DU7JRMw
In the seventh, the idea of an 0-3 start were laid to rest. The Vols put up their second, multi-run inning that started with a Stark single. Christian Scott drew a walk, then Jaslove singled to right for an RBI and then subsequently stole second. Dickey got a ground-out RBI, Jaslove scored on a wild pitch and then two-hole hitter Christian Moore puts an exclamation point on the game with his first home run of the year.
Sophomore @Vol_Baseball INF Christian Moore (@Moore10Chris) turns this pitch around for a long HR his first of the season. ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/g69VtthEEv— ᗪOᑎKEYᕼᗩᑕK™ (@DonkeyHack) February 19, 2023
Tennessee returns to familiar territory on Tuesday with Alabama A&M coming to LNS next Tuesday, the 21st for a two-game series followed by two more home games against Dayton next Friday and Saturdayl