Sophomores Gilbert and Beck leading Vols at the plate
Tennessee baseball’s offense isn’t off to the same start it had in 2020 when it led the nation in runs through the pre-conference slate. However, the Vols are still tied for 13th in the nation in runs, not due to its leading contributors from last season but from its sophomore outfielders Jordan Beck and Drew Gilbert.
Right fielder Jordan Beck started 10 games as a freshman a season ago, hitting a respectable .275 with a homer and nine RBIs. After an offseason of work with the Vols’ staff, Beck has developed into one of Tennessee’s best hitters, batting .324 with three homers, seven extra base hits and a team high 12 RBIs
“A ton of stuff actually,” Beck said of what he worked on over the offseason. “Getting in the cage with E (coach Ebehardt) a ton. Taking out my leg kick was a huge deal for me, and honestly just not being a freshman helps a ton. Not being nervous, way easier that way.”
“It’s been awe inspiring,” Vitello said of Beck’s development. “I’m not saying he’s our best hitter, but the guys all think he’s different. I don’t know how good we are offensively, but I know we’re pretty capable. There’s some good hitters in there so when there’s one that kid of stands out not just to the coaches but to the guys that are older and have seen some really strong hitting from the teams we play and some strong performances from guys like Alerick (Soularie) or Andre (Lipcius), they think he’s different. He’s been gifted with a physical body but he’s put in a lot of work in the cage and on the field and in the weight room to turn himself into what he is.”
While most sophomores benefit from making a large jump physically after spending a full season in a college nutrition and weight training program, Beck came out of high school built like a veteran SEC player and has made just as big of a jump mentally as physically.
“It’s a huge difference,” Beck said on his comfort level. “I can’t really explain it honestly. Everything is better. You know what to expect and there’s nothing too surprising about it.”
Gilbert has picked up right where he left off from last season where he hit .350 while driving in eight runs in 10 starts. This season Gilbert has been an every day starter in center field, proving to be a reliable glove as well as one of the Vols’ most consistent hitters to date.
The Stillwater, Minnesota native is hitting .306 while recording two homers, both timely in the series sweep of Georgia Southern, and six RBIs. Gilbert is also one of the leaders of the team, playing in a very emotional style.
Gilbert’s .306 batting average ranks third on the team, behind just Beck and shortstop Liam Spence.
“You do have to have a little bit of talent,” Vitello said of Beck and Gilbert’s progression. “But those two guys have been buddies — and they get along with each other and are friends away from the field, but I mean work buddies— almost kind of colleagues up here at the facility since the moment they stepped on campus. Constantly taking extra repetitions, arriving early, staying late, getting more out of their repetitions than the other guy or average guy because of their intent focus. It’s a good example of the ideal mix, the Kobe Bryant mix. You have a lot of talent with a lot of work ethic and passion to be the best you can be.”
While he hasn’t seen as many innings this season, possibly a result of his heavy usage in the outfield, Gilbert has still been effective on the mound, allowing no runs and just one hit in two innings of action.
Tennessee has multiple options for how to use Gilbert’s arm, but Vitello has mentioned Gilbert filling an important role in Tennessee’s bullpen as a late inning specialist when Walsh is unavailable.
“Probably the role he’ll most often be used is — at Georgia Southern we’d used Redmond twice and we basically nominated him (Gilbert) as our closer after Hunley,” Vitello said “Leath was so strong that we didn’t have to go to Hunley early so he didn’t have to come into play, or if we get into midweek action he’s a potential starter or closer if we’ve used up Redmond or the other guys.”
While Tennessee’s offense ranks 13th nationally in runs, the numbers are a bit skewed from two dominant wins over a dreadful Arkansas-Pine Bluff team. When you remove the 35 runs scored in those two games the Vols are averaging just 4.75 runs per game.
Ironically, it’s Tennessee’s junior class that broke out a season ago, and the Vols’ seniors, that have struggled in the early going for the Vols.
Max Ferguson and Connor Pavolony raked up preseason accolades, but Ferguson is hitting just .211 and Pavolony is hitting just .238 in the early going.
Jake Rucker has been solid and seems to be turning a corner as of late, but even his 289 batting average with no homers and six RBIs doesn’t compare to where he was at this point last season, .412 batting average, three homers, nine RBIs.
Vitello has stated that he isn’t concerned about his juniors’ slow start, but the Vols need them or their struggling seniors, Luc Lipcius and Evan Russell, to step up their production as a strong Georgia State team comes to Knoxville this weekend for a three-game series.
If one or both groups return to form, the Vols’ lineup could look more like last years when SEC play rolls around.