Midterm grades as Diamond Vols hit the second half of league play
Tennessee is halfway through the conference slate as the Vols prepare for the weekend trip to Lexington. They currently stand at 6-9 in conference play and sit in 10th place in the SEC standings. They’re right in the thick of things as they push for a NCAA Tournament bid.
Let’s see how they grade out.
Everyone knew it was going it be a challenge for this team to score runs against good SEC pitching staffs, and that challenge got even harder with Luc Lipcius' injury against Fresno State.
Tennessee’s hitting has definitely struggled since the beginning of SEC play as the Vols' offense has been inconsistent and has struggled to keep up in high scoring games.
Al Soularie’s production hasn’t dropped off since SEC play began as the junior college transfer is hitting .404 with a homer and eight RBIs in conference games, but besides him the Vols don’t have a single batter hitting over .300.
Andre Lipcius has given good production hitting .298 with a homer and nine RBIs, but Tennessee’s next best batting average in Jake Rucker at .256.
Guys like Justin Ammons and Ricky Martinez, who gave Tennessee major contributions prior to conference play, have struggled mightily. Martinez is hitting just .207 while Ammons, who has spent most of the season at the leadoff spot, sits at .197.
Neither of the Vols’ catchers have been able to give them production at the plate as Landon gray is hitting .071 and Connor Pavolony is hitting .100.
Tennessee has reached the 15 run plateau just twice in a SEC series, and one of them came when the Vols scored 15 in the series opening win over South Carolina.
In total, Tennessee is just averaging 3.7 runs a game in conference play.
The positives from the plate have been that Tennessee has played small ball at an overall solid level. Tennessee has been able to stay at third in the SEC in steals adding 20 in the first 15 games.
Tennessee hasn’t been able to get it done in every clutch moment at the plate, but they have had some pivotal at-bats that have allowed them to survive in the difficult start to conference play.
Tennessee's starting pitching has cooled down from its exceptionally hot start to the season but has still turned in good outings in conference play.
Garrett Stallings has been the Friday night ace head coach Tony Vitello hoped he would be for the Vols. Stallings has been good in four of his five starts, and his one poor start was in a 15-5 win over South Carolina.
The junior has been exceptional in his last two starts against Mississippi State and Georgia. Stallings has solidified himself as one of the SEC’s best arms, with an ERA of 2.08 in SEC play.
Zach Linginfelter has been wildly inconsistent in conference play for the Vols. The hard-throwing right hander struggled against Auburn and couldn’t make it into the third inning against Vanderbilt in Georgia.
It hasn’t been all bad for the Sevierville native, though. Linginfelter was good against South Carolina, and was exceptional against Mississippi State, holding one of the league's best lineup scoreless.
Tennessee doesn’t need Mississippi State Linginfelter every week, but the Vols can’t afford to have Vanderbilt Linginfelter going forward.
Will Neely’s stats don’t jump out at you. The senior has an ERA of 6.30, but Tennessee has gotten what they want out of Neely most times out. He’s given the Vols four to five innings consistently while giving the them a chance to win on Sunday’s.
Garrett Crochet was solid in his first weekend start as the sophomore held Georgia scoreless for five frames.
The starting pitching has been overall pretty good for Tennessee, but Vitello will be looking for more consistency from the group.
Tony Vitello has long said that pitching depth was the strength of Tennessee’s team. It’s proven that over the first five weekends of SEC play.
The Vols’ bullpen has given up just 16 runs in conference play and has a combined 3.42 ERA. Garrett Crochet was the lead man out of the bullpen before moving to the starting lineup. The sophomore wasn’t as dominant as he was prior to conference play, but has still been good turning in a 3.54 ERA.
His 4.1 scoreless innings against Vanderbilt helped Tennessee notch, perhaps its biggest win of the year.
Redshirt sophomore Redmond Walsh has been the biggest surprise for the Vols out of the bullpen. The lefty has both of Tennessee’s saves and a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings pitched in league play.
Andrew Schultz has thrown 8.1 innings for Tennessee, and hasn’t been exceptional, but has found enough command to allow the hard throwing righty to be effective. Schultz has a 4.32 ERA with four walks to go along with his 11 strikeouts.
Vitello has been able to find other guys to give him outs here and there and should have an additional weapon now that Camden Sewell is back from injury.
This group has been good for the Vols this season and is full of guys with different skill sets. They’ll have a new challenge with Crochet moving to the starter role, but they should be up to it.
It’s hard not to be impressed with what Vitello has done so far in his second year in Knoxville. He still doesn’t have enough talent to go head-to-head with the league’s best, but the pitching staff’s development has given them an ability to compete in this league.
Major credit to pitching coach Frank Anderson for what he’s done in developing this staff. It’s easy to see why he was such a big target for Vitello when he took the Tennessee job.
Vitello has this team believing they can beat anyone that they play. He seems to be pressing the right buttons on when to move away, or ride it out with his pitchers.
Tennessee has made some mistakes on the base paths this season and that has really been the only major complaint for the coaching.
As impressive as everything has been, Vitello’s ability to keep the team’s head up after the bad start has to be the most impressive thing that he has done.
The first half of conference play was full of challenging series' against the nation’s best and the Vols came out of it in a good position.
The opening weekend series at Auburn saw Tennessee get swept in a series that they could’ve won a couple games, but since then, Vitello has to be pretty pleased from what he’s gotten from his team.
It would take a collapse to miss the SEC Tournament, and nearly every NCAA Tournament bracket has Tennessee in it right now.
The bats are going to have to give the Vols more, but when you can pitch and play defense the way this team can you’re going to be in nearly every game.
Four of the last five series are ones I think this team has a legitimate chance to win.
They still have work to do, but Tennessee is in the best place it’s been halfway through conference play in many years.