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Diamond Vol 3-2-1: Gator series win sets up big final weekend

Tennessee’s baseball team did what it needed to do in its weekend trip to the Sunshine State. The Vols took 2-of-3 over Florida, including the series' final two games to get to 12-15 in SEC play before their final conference series.

Let’s look back at a wild road trip and look ahead to the regular season’s final week

THREE OBSERVATIONS

1. Tennessee looked dead in the water

After the Vols took a 9-2 lead in the fourth inning of the first game of a must-win series Friday night, things seemed to be unraveling.

Florida, a couple runs at a time, slowly cut into Tennessee’s lead until it was just down just a single run at the end of seven innings, and after the heart of the Vols order couldn’t provide any insurance in the top of the eighth the Gators took a 10-9 lead.

It was the second straight SEC game that the Vols led by seven and ended up losing. It seemed like a catastrophic defeat that would all but end the their NCAA Tournament chances.

However, Tennessee responded the only way it could. The Vols held on for dear life on Saturday as the Gators erased another lead. This time a four run gap. Camden Sewell, who gave up the go ahead runs against Missouri on Sunday, pitched the eighth and the ninth innings, holding off Florida with two scoreless frames and securing a one run win.

Sunday saw the Vols play the comeback kids as the Gators jumped out to a 4-1 lead, before Tennessee came storming back with four runs in the seventh to take a 5-4 lead. Tennessee missed chances to provide the struggling bullpen insurance, but it wouldn’t matter.

Sean Hunley put together three scoreless innings giving up only one hit and a couple of long outs. The sophomore closed out the game for the Vols as Vitello didn’t go to Walsh or Schultz for the ninth.

Instead of looking back at ‘what could have been’ Tennessee still has plenty to play for in the last week of the regular season. You have to applaud the mindset and resiliency this team showed in Gainesville after Friday night’s collapse. It’s why they’re still playing meaningful baseball.

2. Everybody hits

It’s been overshadowed by the pitching staff’s struggles, but Tennessee’s bats have woken up the past three weekends.

Tennessee’s 22 and 21 runs in the past two weekends are good enough for the Vols' third and fourth best in SEC play, slightly behind the 23-run weekend against South Carolina.

This success against Florida was similar to the success against Missouri. The Vols got big at-bats from everyone on the roster.

Connor Pavolony, who entered Sunday with a batting average of .200 in SEC play, was big for the Vols by going 2-for-3 at the plate

Jake Rucker didn’t stay quite as hot as he had been, but the freshman turned in a two-hit performance Friday and had a double on Sunday.

No other player demonstrates the Vols' team effort more than Ricky Martinez, a valuable player because of his elite defense. Martinez has struggled adjusting to SEC pitching and slumped for most of SEC play. Sunday, with Tennessee trailing 4-1, the junior college transfer took a 2-1 pitch over the left-field wall for his first homer in a Tennessee jersey.

It couldn’t have come at a bigger time as the three-run homer tied up the game and swung all the momentum to the Tennessee dugout.

In total, seven different Tennessee players batted in runs on the weekend including guys who had recently struggled at the plate, including Jay Charleston and Justin Ammons.

Don’t discount the stars either, as Andre Lipcius' 4-for-5 performance Saturday while under the weather was one of the Vols' biggest of the season. He drove in three runs and made the game winning play throwing out the tying runner as he tried to tag up from third.

Florida’s pitching is the worst in the league, but the continued success bodes well for the Vols and shows that they don’t need to hold every opponent to under three runs.

3. I think that’s the Zach Linginfelter and Garrett Crochet you’re going to get

Neither Zach Linginfelter nor Garrett Crochet gave Tennessee great starts this weekend, but it seems like that is what you’re going to get from them, at least against lineups as good as Florida’s.

Crochet’s performance was worse than Stallings, allowing seven earned runs in 6.1 innings, one of which he left to the bullpen.

He certainly wasn’t his best, but the numbers make him look worse than he pitched. The sophomore only allowed seven hits and two walks while striking out six and kept the lead for the Vols deep into the game.

We’ve seen Crochet look better in starts, but mostly against lesser lineups in less innings. He got the Vols late into the game which was important with the bullpen issues the Vols had.

Linginfelter followed the protocol for one of his starts. He looked un-hittable at times, struggled to hold baserunners with his long release, and eventually lost the game in the middle innings.

What he avoided was a large number of walks, and so when the Gators teed back-to-back homers on him, they just scored two runs. He exited after turning in 4.2 innings and giving up four runs.

Linginfelter isn’t going to take you deep into games, but he can pitch like he did Sunday, limit some of the damage, and provide Tennessee with solid starts.

Florida’s lineup is every bit as good as its pitching is bad, and Linginfelter and Crochet have proven they aren’t elite SEC starters right now. Could they be better than they were this weekend? Sure. Right now, that’s about what you can expect from them against that good of a lineup.

TWO QUESTIONS

What does the bullpen look like?

Even after Garrett Crochet moved to the starting rotation it seemed like the roles of the pitchers in the Tennessee bullpen were set.

However, these last few weeks have seen things get shaken up as Andre Schultz has struggled to put together productive innings for the Vols.

Redmond Walsh, the Vols closer-do it all guy, even struggled by giving up the final two runs on Friday. He wouldn’t see action in either of the next two games.

It feels like everything is kind of on a game-by-game basis right now for the bullpen. Despite struggling Friday, Vitello opted to use Richard Jackson again on Sunday and the junior didn’t disappoint giving the Vols a scoreless 1.1 innings

Sean Hunley, who struggled mightily earlier in the season, is stealing innings from Andrew Schultz right now. Vitello went to him in some usual Schultz situations against Missouri and did the same Sunday against Florida.

He gave up some loud outs, but only one hit as he went around the Gators order pitching three scoreless innings with Tennessee clinging to a one run lead.

I’d also be wrong not to mention Camden Sewell here as the freshman pitched two high stakes innings Saturday, and though he gave up a couple hits, he didn’t allow a run and picked up his first career save.

Going forward I’d expect to see less Schultz, at least a quick rope for him if he can’t throw strikes and more Hunley and Sewell. I’d expect to continue to see Walsh in a primary role. Jackson to come in for a couple batters at a time and Will Neely to see some long relief action.

2. Where does Tennessee stand?

Tennessee got 2-of-3 in the must-win series in Gainesville, so what’s the postseason outlook look like now?

The Vols are almost assuredly going to be the No. 10 seed in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee has a two-game lead and a tiebreaker over 11th-place Florida, and a one game deficit behind Auburn, but the Tigers hold the tiebreaker over the Vols.

It would take some strange events for Tennessee to move out of the 10th place spot. That would match the Vols up against the No. 7 seed, currently Texas A&M, in the second game of Day 1 action of the SEC Tournament.

The win also keeps the Vols on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Tennessee currently sits with 12 SEC wins. Since league expansion in 2013, 14 of the 24 teams with 13-15 SEC wins have made the NCAA Tournament.

With Tennessee’s high RPI, you’d think the Vols will be a lock at 14 wins and still have a good shot with just 13.

If they can’t take the series against Ole Miss to close the season the pressure will be on the Vols as they head to Hoover. They could still possibly get in without a win, but a win would go a long way to solidifying their position.

ONE PREDICTION

Tennessee takes the series from Ole Miss

Ole Miss has been a strange team this season. The Rebels won at Arkansas and swept Texas A&M and Florida. However, they’ve dropped mid-week games, were swept by Mississippi State, and lost a series against Kentucky.

You don’t know what Ole Miss team you’re going to get week in and week out.

Coming off getting swept at home to its biggest rival, you’d expect a bounce back, but the Rebels have struggled on the road this season. Ole Miss is the only team in the SEC with a winning record in league play, but a losing record on the road.

For the Vols, Lindsey Nelson Stadium has been good to them this season. Tennessee will be locked in as a series win would be huge for its NCAA chances.

I think the Vols play locked in, get a big performance from Garrett Stallings and claim their NCAA Tournament spot.