Diamond Vols 3-2-1: Vols looking to bounce back, need improved pitching
The last two weekends saw Tony Vitello matchup with his alma mater and his former employer, and neither series went well for the second-year head coach.
Tennessee was swept at Arkansas and dropped a winnable series against Missouri this past weekend.
Let’s look back at another disappointing series for the Vols and look forward to another big SEC series at Florida.
1. Let’s talk about Sunday’s collapse: With Tennessee taking a commanding lead in the finale of what was a long and wild series that saw four-hour games and two-hour rain delays, a Tennessee employee in the press box commented on “How nice it would be if we would just run away with this.”
Sadly for the Vols, it’s never that easy.
After Zach Linginfelter dominated the first two innings, the junior did the one thing you can’t do with a huge lead, started walking batters. The junior walked three in the third inning as he gave up five runs before getting pulled.
Paul Gomez would take Camden Sewell deep on just his second pitch and Tennessee’s lead was gone just like that.
Vitello implied that he thought Linginfelter got in his head too much during the start and that’s what led to his troubles. Either way, his unraveling was catastrophic in what was a huge game for Tennessee.
Credit Sewell and the rest of the Vols for steadying the ship after the inning and eventually reclaiming the lead in the bottom of the seventh, but once again, Vitello made his change too late as Gomez, who entered the day with one-hit on the series, went deep for the second time on Sunday and gave Missouri its first lead of the game.
With Missouri’s ace TJ Sikkema in to pitch the final two innings, the Vols didn’t have another run in them dropping the pivotal game 10-8.
The loss is a huge blow for the Vols, who are now just 1-5 in their last six conference games. Tennessee still has all of its goals out in front of them, but it’s hard to deny how much a win would’ve meant.
With Missouri traveling to red-hot Vanderbilt this coming weekend, a half-game lead over Tennessee wouldn’t look very safe. Instead, Tennessee finds itself desperate for a series win as they travel to Gainesville to face a struggling Gators squad.
More on that later.
2. Pitching struggles again: For the second consecutive week, Tennessee’s pitchers have struggled turning in more poor outings.
My prediction that Tennessee would win in Stallings' next outing did come to fruition, but not due to a strong outing from the right-hander.
In 4.1 innings, Stallings allowed nine hits and five runs in the 11-5 win.
Crochet couldn’t go deep for the Vols either on Saturday, as the junior was bounced after 5.1 innings. His performance wasn’t poor, but Missouri’s three-run sixth inning broke open the game for the Tigers.
I already discussed some of Linginfelter’s struggles above, but it’s hard to overstate just how bad of a blow that was for Tennessee on Sunday. He seemed to have it all working for him early, but he completely dropped off in the third.
Even the bullpen, which was overall good on the weekend, seems to have some issues. After getting rocked around at Arkansas, Andrew Schultz walked the only batter he faced this weekend and Vitello elected to use Hunley on Sunday over Schultz.
I don’t know if he wasn’t available for two innings or not, but Vitello using Walsh in the ninth inning on Friday, even after Tennessee extended its lead to six, seemed costly. Walsh looked excellent in the ninth inning Sunday, but it was too little, too late at that point.
Vitello downplayed the recent struggles of his staff after the game Sunday, but at this point it seems like time to at least be somewhat concerned. Linginfelter and Crochet haven’t showed much consistency in SEC play and I’d expect their leashes to get shorter here in the next few weeks.
3. Rucker rakes: Jake Rucker has quietly become one of the Vols best hitters this season. The freshman’s growth over the season shows and Rucker is second on the team with a batting average of .324 in the SEC games.
This weekend was no exception, as Rucker was one of the Vols’ best hitters going 6-for-12 with four RBIs.
Maybe most impressively is the flash in power he’s shown lately. Over the last two weekends Rucker has tripled his extra-base hits, tallying five against the Tigers and the Razorbacks.
The Greenbrier, Tenn. native isn’t going to hit a lot of homers, at least at this point in his career, but if he can consistently add some power to the Vols lineup it could pay massive dividends.
Rucker moved up to sixth spot for the last few games of the series and adding another solid hitter behind Lipcius, Soularie, and Russell, who is quietly hitting the ball well again, would be huge for the Vols lineup.
Can the lineup keep it up?
For all the disappointments on the weekend, the offense wasn’t one of them as the bats gave Tennessee winning performances in two of the three games.
Evan Russell, Pete Derkay, Justin Ammons, and Rucker all swung the bat well this weekend and it’s a more dynamic Tennessee offense when those guys give them production. I can’t imagine Vitello will keep Jay Charleston in the two spot as the junior speedster cannot find a way to get on base.
Charleston won’t fall out of the lineup due to what his glove brings you in center field and how dynamic he is when he finds a way on base, but he can’t continue to be at the top of the order. It hurt Tennessee on a couple different occasions this weekend.
Tennessee will need continued run support next weekend, as the Gators offense continues to have a strong season. However, Florida can’t seem to get anybody out, hence the 9-15 SEC record.
The Gators will come into the weekend desperate for a series win after getting swept by Georgia for the first time in 13 years.
Florida will be fighting for its postseason lives next weekend and the Vols will hope to put the final dagger into the disappointing season. If they do it, the offense will be a big reason why.
Will Tennessee get L. Lipcius or Ferguson back?
Maybe it was the fact that his team just blew a seven-run lead, but Vitello sounded pretty dejected when asked about the status of his two injured first basemen.
Luc Lipcius foot hasn’t been healing after he fractured it against Fresno State. The Vols were originally expecting to be without Lipcius for five weeks, but this weekend marked his eighth week injured. With him still being in a boot, it doesn’t seem like the Vols will be getting him back this season.
That is purely speculation on my part, as no one has told me that he won’t return. However, with the way things are trending at the moment that seems like the most likely outcome.
That development would be disappointing for the team, but you really hate to see it happen to Lipcius who was having a strong start to his junior season after missing the majority of his sophomore campaign due to injury
Ferguson seems more likely to return to the lineup, but it seems like it might be later rather than sooner for the freshman.
Pete Derkay has done a nice job subbing in for the duo, but there is no doubt that the Vols miss Lipcius and Ferguson’s fielding along with the flexibility and depth it provided the lineup.
Florida takes the series over Tennessee
I went back-and-forth on this one all Sunday afternoon, but I think I’d have to roll with the Gators if you made me bet on it.
Florida is far from playing very good baseball, but the Gators can light up the scoreboard and Tennessee can struggle to keep up with the pace in those types of games.
In fact, Tennessee is just 4-6 in games this season where both teams score five or more runs.
Both teams are going to be desperate for a series win to improve their NCAA Tournament hopes, and while I’d take Tennessee on a neutral field, I’ll have to ride with the home team who lifted up a trophy in Omaha two years ago opposed to the team who hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since I was in elementary school.