Just two days after snagging its first SEC sweep of the year against the Texas A&M Aggies, the Tennessee Volunteer baseball team used nine pitchers and got home runs from Blake Burke and Christian Scott to beat UNC Asheville 5-0.
With the upcoming road trip to play No. 1 LSU just over the horizon, it was clear manager Tony Vitello wanted to use the midweek game to get some work for some of his bullpen arms and gave freshman Jake Kendro a start at second base.
The hits and runs were hard to come by early — the Vols scored their first run of the game off a nine-hole hitting, Christian Scott solo home run in the fifth inning.
That came just a few innings after Scott saved what would have likely been at-least an extra-base hit with a diving catch in left-center field.
I’ve admittedly been a bit critical of Scott this season, as he’s hitting just .200 on the year. I didn’t expect a Trey-Lipscomb type of season from Scott’s senior year, but I’d hoped he’d be able to add something more than just a plus-defender in the outfield.
The aforementioned Kendro accounted for Tennessee’s first hit of the game with a leadoff double in the bottom of the third inning. Scott and Maui Ahuna struck out behind him, and Hunter Ensley ended the inning with a flyout to center. Scott’s home run in the fifth was just UT’s second hit of the game.
In the bottom of the sixth, an inning after Scott’s home run gave Tennessee a 1-0 lead, Blake Burke smashed a ball over the right-field fence, as he’s wont to do from time to time.
As the tweet indicated, the home run was Burke’s 10th of the season, which leads the team. Burke also leads the team in hits, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage. I feel like a broken record here, as I know I’ve taken y’all through all the various stats he’s leading the team in, but I feel like it’s worth repeating considering he’s just a sophomore and has slid right into the heart of the lineup after being a pinch-hit, home-run machine in his freshman year. That’s not always the easiest adjustment to make — coming off the bench to smash and going to an everyday player who’s leading the team in multiple offensive categories.
After Burke’s Blast, the Vols opened up the game a bit. Zane Denton, Jared Dickey and Griffin Merritt notched back-to-back-to-back walks with 12 of the 14 prior pitches called outside the zone.
An odd balk from the UNC Asheville pitcher advanced the runners and scored Denton, and then a Cal Stark groundout scored Dickey. Kendro and Scott both flied out to end the inning with Merritt stranded on third. The Vols managed three runs on just one hit in the bottom of the sixth that made it a 4-1 Vols’ lead.
In the bottom of the seventh, Tennessee added one more run when Maui Ahuna and freshman Dylan Dreiling started the frame off with back-to-back base hits. Ahuna made it all the way from first to third on Dreiling’s base knock to get 90-feet away from home plate.
Strangely enough, an inning after Burke went deep, he got hit by an 0-1 pitch that advanced Dreiling to second. Zane Denton got to first on a fielder’s choice, and Ahuna plated an unearned run on a fielding error from the UNC Asheville first basemen.
With the bases juiced, Kyle Booker, Merritt and Logan Chambers struck out swinging in succession to end the inning. UT added an unearned run and two hits to make it 5-0 heading into the eighth frame.
While the Vols eventually got the bats rolling, one can’t say the same for the UNC Asheville lineup. Tennessee started Zander Sechrist, who went just one and 2⁄3 innings, striking out two and allowing just one hit. He only threw 17 pitches, 12 of which went for strikes. His ERA is now down to a team-leading .52.
Junior and Knoxville-native Bryce Jenkins was the only Tennessee pitcher to last at-least two innings. He faced five batters in two frames and didn’t allow a hit, run or a walk. He struck out two and tossed 16 of his total 22 pitches for strikes. Here he is ending the third inning on a nasty breaking ball:
JUCO transfer Jacob Bimbi was the only Tennessee pitcher to have any struggles getting the ball over the plate. He ended his day with 1.1 IP, and he struck out three, but he also walked two batters. Bimbi threw the most pitches of any Tennessee pitcher in the evening, by quite a margin, as he needed 29 pitches to get through his four outs. Only 16 of those pitches were called strikes. Regardless — he got the win today.
Redshirt sophomore Aaron Combs looked maybe the best of any of the pitchers the Vols threw Tuesday evening — he came on in the sixth to relieve Bimbi and proceeded to strike out the side on just 11 total pitches. Another gnarly, inning-ending breaking ball from the Vols’ bullpen here:
Freshman AJ Russell — a guy I’m really high on his potential, tossed the seventh inning and got a strikeout and two ground-ball outs. Russell’s ERA is second-best on the team at 0.87, and I’m excited to see what kinda chances the Franklin, TN native gets in conference play.
Veteran arm Kirby Connell pitched the eighth, notched on strikeout and didn’t allow a hit, run or walk. His ERA is down to 3.38, and we saw the breaking pitches coming from the lefty that make him an asset to this team.
Hollis Fanning and Zach Joyce each got to get an out a piece in the ninth — Joyce got a swinging strikeout, and Vitello brought out redshirt sophomore Jake Fitzgibbons to get the final out. Interestingly enough, Joyce didn’t leave the game — he just moved out to right field. Fitzgibbons walked the first batter on four balls and a strike, but rebounded by getting the final out of the game with an 0-2 swinging strikeout.
Tennessee travels to Baton Rouge to play the No.1-ranked LSU Tigers this weekend, which will obviously be no small feat. The Tigers feat. Outfielder Dylan Crews is hitting .531 in 24 games so far this year, which is so wildly outrageous that I checked the stat three times to make sure I wasn’t transposing a number somewhere.
He leads the team with nine home runs and has taken over the No. 1 prospect spot from Chase Dollander on MLB dot com thanks to the incredible start to his season. But then the Tigers also have arguably the top transfer portal player in college baseball from last season in Tommy White, who’s following up his freshman campaign with the Wolfpack as the 2022 ACC Freshman of the Year by hitting .392 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs as a sophomore with the Tigers.
Then there’s the pitching staff: Paul Skenes returns in the Friday-night starter slot and has a 0.72 ERA in five starts. The Tigers have a bevy of arms to literally and figuratively throw at you. I’m not going to go through the rest of it here, but be prepared — it could be a rough weekend.