BaseVol 3-2-1; Vols open with a sweep
Tennessee opened its 2021 campaign strong in Statesboro, Georgia, sweeping the Eagles with strong pitching and a couple of timely long balls.
Let’s take a look at the opening weekend while looking forward to the rest of the non-conference slate in this week’s 3-2-1.
1. — Vols find a way to win— Tennessee picked up three wins on the road without playing its best baseball.
At the plate, Tennessee didn’t have its strongest weekend, with just five players exiting the opening weekend with a batting average over .200 and a team .282 on-base percentage.
After tearing it up a season ago and throughout the fall and preseason, the Vols’ bats were at-best inconsistent in the opening weekend. The biggest concern was the strikeout numbers. Tennessee batters struck out 45 times on the opening weekend and a putrid 36% of at-bats.
I think you’ll definitely see that number go down throughout the course of the season, but I also don’t think it’ll be as low as it was in 2019 when the Vols struck out only seven times a game. That’s just the nature of things when you have five players that will contend to hit double-digit homers.
In the field, Tennessee committed four errors on the weekend leading to two unearned runs. Tennessee’s fielding wasn’t up to the standard it’s built over the past few seasons, making a few bad mistakes and not making plays that it ordinarily makes.
I don’t see this being a long term problem and seems like it could be the nature of knocking the in-game rust off while fielding the ball on a non turf field for the first time in a year.
Credit Tennessee for finding ways to win this weekend though. The Vols didn’t play their best but competed all weekend and found ways to win close games when it matters.
Just in the opening weekend, Tennessee hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the ninth inning, survived the winning run on third with one out and hit a one-out grand slam to effectively seal the sweep.
This weekend showed a lot about the culture change in the program since Vitello has taken over. I know it’s just an opening weekend sweep over a Sun Belt team, but Vitello’s team played with swagger and confidence throughout a weekend that they didn’t play their best on the road. Not something you saw from Tennessee baseball not so long ago.
2. — Dallas impresses in season opener— Tennessee junior Chad Dallas was phenomenal in the season opener Friday, no hitting Georgia Southern for six innings before three consecutive Eagles hits resulted in a pair of runs before Dallas exited.
The former junior college prospect also recorded seven strikeouts to just one walk.
A season ago, Dallas was thrust into the Friday starter spot in a temporary capacity due to Garrett Crochet’s shoulder injury and was impressive in his first season on Rocky Top.
I wasn’t completely sold on Dallas being a Friday starter after last season, and I’ll always be a little tentative until I see him do it against the SEC, but Dallas was at worst Tennessee’s second best pitcher this weekend. The Orange, Texas native may not stay in the Friday night spot, but I’d be very surprised if he didn’t remain a weekend starter.
Dallas may not blow you away with his fastball, but he pounds the strike zone and his high-level curveball gives him a real strikeout option.
Now in his five starts at Tennessee, Dallas has allowed: no runs in five innings against Western Illinois, two runs in five innings against Texas Tech, one run in seven innings against George Washington, three runs in 4.1 innings against Wright State and two runs in 6.1 innings against Georgia Southern.
That’s strong production and gives Tony Vitello what he asks for out of starters— getting it to the bullpen with a chance to win.
3. — Sophomores carry the offensive load— A year ago, Tennessee’s offense was driven by the power and production jumps of its sophomore class. The opening weekend of the season saw this year’s sophomores providing big hits and power.
After each hit just one home run in their 17-game freshman season, both Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert went deep twice in the opening weekend while being two of the Vols’ most productive bats.
Gilbert is the only Vol hitting over .300, recording a .308 batting average with a trio of extra-base hits and RBIs. Gilbert was also one of the only Vols without strikeout problems, falling victim just one time in 13 at-bats.
Beck hit just .231 on the weekend, which ironically was good for third on the team, but you could see the natural power in both of his homers and like Gilbert, also hit a double to go along with his homers.
The four long balls also came at timely moments with Beck’s Sunday shot giving Tennessee an early lead and Gilbert’s Saturday blasts tying the game then giving the Vols’ a two run lead in the ninth.
We didn’t get to see a ton of the freshmen last season due to the shortened season but Vitello seems to have real faith in some of its members we didn’t get to see much last season. Infielders Jorel Ortega and Logan Steenstra each started a game in the opening weekend.
1. So how good in Georgia Southern?
Tennessee’s start to the season was strong, but as is the nature in college baseball you have to wonder how strong the competition you’re playing is.
Georgia Southern was picked to finish in second place (tied with South Alabama) of the Sun Belt Eastern division in the preseason, so the general expectation is solid but far from great.
However, this is a team with some real experience playing, and winning, against high level competition. A season ago, the Eagles defeated a top five Georgia team three times in two weeks.
The Sun Belt had a strong opening weekend of the season with the team picked first in the East, Coastal Carolina, losing a rubber match game three by one run at Duke, while the team picked sixth in the East, Georgia State, split a four game series at No. 14 West Virginia, outscouring the Mountaineers, 32-18.
Georgia Southern’s Saturday starter Chase Dollander could also be a bit of a secret weapon for the Eagles. The true freshman was fantastic against Tennessee in his first career start, allowing just one run and fanning eight in 5.2 innings.
It’s hard to make too many definitive judgments after just one weekend, but Georgia Southern appears to be a solid team and likely the best non conference win Tennessee is going to have. We will get more looks of Georgia Southern against top level talent as the Eagles play midweeks against Georgia, Georgia Tech and Clemson and play weekend series against Oklahoma and No. 25 East Carolina.
2. What’s up with the lack of Evan Russell?
Left fielder Evan Russell has been a constant in Tennessee’s lineup since Vitello’s first season.
Russell hit .260 and three homers in his freshman season before hitting fifth for much of Tennessee’s resurgent 2019 season. Russell hit .274 and six homers as a sophomore while starting 50 of 55 games.
So it was odd when a guy that’s started 73% of games his first three seasons didn’t earn a single start in the season’s opening weekend.
Vitello had said repeatedly that there were a plethora of strong options in the outfield so it wasn’t a shock that he didn’t start opening day, but for him not to earn a single start and for Vitello to move Max Ferguson to the outfield to start Streenstra Sunday, it seemed odd.
Russell was available on the weekend, playing the field on Friday and substituting in and earning two at-bats Sunday.
It’s hard to imagine Russell, who’s considered one of the team’s major leaders, still won’t have a major role on this team but his lack of usage again shows how much Tennessee’s program has grown even just in the last two years.
Russell was one of the most important position players on a 40-win team. Now both Gilbert and Beck have more upside at the plate and despite some tough moments this weekend, Christian Scott is a better fielder.
And that’s not a knock on Russell. He’s shown that he can hit .270 while providing some power, but there are other guys with higher ceilings then him.
Still, I expect to see more of the Lexington, Tennessee native this week and going forward.
Vols stay unbeaten through the second week
Tennessee’s past its biggest challenge of the pre conference slate, sweeping Georgia Southern on the road. The Vols now return home to the friendly confines of Lindsey Nelson Stadium where they’ll play nine straight home games before a road, midweek bout at Charlotte.
The Vols second week starts with two midweek matchups with an abysmal Arkansas- Pine Bluff program. The Golden Lions went 8-42 in the 2019 season and haven’t recorded a winning record since 2015.
Indiana State opened up its 2021 season by stealing a game at Pittsburgh and the Sycamores have a respectable program, going 8-6 in 2020 and 43-18 in 2019 on their way to a second place finish in the Nashville Regional.
Still, I think Tennessee gets it done and stays unbeaten with a 5-0 week.