The baseball 3-2-1
Tennessee went 4-2 on its second week of the season, sweeping a midweek series with Arkansas- Pine Bluff before splitting a four game set with Indiana State.
1 — Vols need more from their veteran hitters— Tennessee’s offense hasn’t been bad in its first nine games, but it has left something to be desired after leading the nation in runs and finishing second in homers in the condensed 2021 season.
The Vols have gotten strong production from the sophomore class, especially from Jordan Beck, .313, three homers, 12 RBIs, and Drew Gilbert, .303, two homers, five RBIs.
It’s Tennessee’s veterans and in particular its breakout stars from the 2020 season that haven’t quite lived up to expectations.
Connor Pavolony hit .342 with four home runs a season ago, but has struggled a bit out of the gate with a .238 batting average and just one RBI. Pavolony turned in some better at-bats Sunday and does have an on-base percentage over .400, but the junior backstop certainly hasn’t hit his stride yet.
Max Ferguson has faced the same problems. After being on a plethora of preseason All-America lists, the junior from Florida has started slow with a stat line of 212/.341/.333 in the first nine games.
Pavolony and Ferguson also both made crucial errors Sunday with Ferguson’s leading to Indiana State’s three-run eighth inning that tied the game.
Even Jake Rucker, who had a strong weekend hitting .313 with three RBIs hasn’t completely hit the ground running.
“That’s what you see out of older clubs a lot,” Vitello said. “Especially those juniors, early on there can be some tension and extra thoughts and when guys start to relax and play it can be scary when it’s guys with ability.”
The fact that it is veterans that have shown they can be effective hitters struggling is why I’m not hitting the panic button on Tennessee’s offense, but the play of its core juniors is something to monitor in the coming weeks leading into SEC play.
2 — Sean Hunley is reliable as they come— Tennessee’s starting rotation still has question marks through two weeks, more below, but what the Vols have for a fact is two reliable, high end bullpen arms.
Redmond Walsh has been well discussed here and everywhere over the past few seasons as he’s developed into one of the SEC’s best closers, but RHP Sean Hunley has slid under the radar a bit, serving in any role he’s been asked to fill.
Hunley is yet to have a season ERA north of 2.75 in his first three seasons in Knoxville and looks that good and better through his first four appearances.
The Mt. Juliet native was fantastic for Tennessee in two crucial situations on the weekend, first taking the ball from Chad Dallas with a one run lead Friday, retiring all 12 batters he faced, then coming in for an injured Jackson Leath in the first inning Sunday and pitching great.
Hunley gave up two earned runs in 5.2 innings of work, holding Indiana State hitless until giving up an infield hit and his lone mistake, a two-run blast, in the sixth inning.
“It’s unbelievable,” Walsh said of Hunley postgame. “I don’t think there’s anybody like him in the country. The guy doesn’t show emotion. He just goes out there and does his thing. Throws a heavy fastball, gets a lot of early outs and is able to eat innings whenever needs be.”
Through 12.2 innings this season, Hunley has allowed just six hits and three runs while striking out 16.
3 — Uncharacteristic defensive mistakes costing Tennessee— Strong defense, particularly up the middle, has been the calling card of Vitello’s first three teams in Knoxville, particularly in 2019 when they finished second in the SEC in fielding percentage.
Over the first two weeks of the season, however, defense has been a weakness for Tennessee. The Vols have already given up more unearned runs this year in nine games (seven) than they did in 19 games last season (five).
Defensive mistakes cost Tennessee on the weekend against Indiana State as they recorded six errors in the four game series.
Errors were particularly costly in Sunday’s win where a throwing error by Ferguson on an easy play extended the Sycamores eighth inning and led to three unearned runs crossing home and tying the game.
What’s particularly odd about the defensive struggles is that it’s the guys that have played tons of innings making the mistakes.
Whether it’s juniors pressing like Vitello alluded to above (Ferguson, Pavolony and Rucker lead the Vols with two errors each) or something else, Tennessee needs to get it fixed sooner rather than later and it can’t remain an issue in SEC play. The Vols don’t have the pitching to overcome those mistakes against the nation’s best.
What does Tennessee do with its weekend rotation?
Tennessee returned no one with a weekend start and Vitello said before the season he believes he has seven or eight guys capable of being weekend starters.
Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson have rolled with Dallas, Blade Tidwell and Elijah Pleasants as the weekend starters to start the year and the results could be better.
Tidwell has been solid but not great in his first two starts, recording a 2.85 ERA in eight total innings this season. Still the freshman is extremely talented and just scratching the surface, making it unlikely to see him in any role other than weekend starter for the time being.
Pleasants has seen more issues in his first two starts. The Clarksville native was mediocre in his debut, allowing two earned runs in five innings while picking up the win, but struggled badly against Indiana State.
The junior gave up five earned runs, four hits and two walks in just two innings of action as the Sycamores jumped out to a big lead in game two of the double header.
With Leath having starting experience and big time stuff, I thought we’d see Vitello and company pivot to the senior from Texas, but Leath went down with a hamstring injury in the first inning of Sunday’s game and Vitello said postgame that “he doubts” Leath will be available the next two weeks.
So what does Tennessee do? I could see them giving Pleasants one more opportunity due to how strong his offseason was, but long term it’s hard to see him in that role.
Hunley is an obvious candidate to take over that spot, but you can’t overstate how valuable it is to have a mentally strong pitcher like Hunley in your bullpen who can go at any time.
Camden Sewell and Jason Rackers were preseason candidates to earn weekend starts, but Sewell has struggled in his first two appearances, giving up three runs in 5.1 innings. Rackers has just seen one midweek appearance and still isn’t quite 100% after having Tommy John surgery last spring.
Hunley could also move into the starter role just in a short term capacity until Leath returns or Vitello has more confidence in other guys, but whatever he decides will be fascinating to watch over the next few weeks.
Do we see more tinkering with the lineup?
Vitello isn’t shy with tinkering with his lineups, especially before SEC play, and we saw him do just that Sunday, moving the struggling Ferguson away from the lead off spot and into the six hole while hitting non everyday starter Pete Derkay at the two spot.
However, there weren't a ton of lineup changes for Tennessee in the second weekend of the season after starting a plethora of different combinations the first five games.
Vitello has talked frequently about the depth in the outfield and while we’ve seen a lot of bodies there so far this season, Evan Russell, Gilbert and Beck earned every start in the outfield on the weekend with no bench players getting a designated hitter start either.
That felt particularly odd given Vitello’s disappointment with his team’s at-bats across the board on Saturday.
Russell also struggled in his full time return to action, hitting just .067 on the weekend.
It will be interesting to see if we see more Christian Scott, who was one of Tennessee’s hottest hitters in the preseason and started opening day, or Kyle Booker, who has five RBIs and a .286/.455/.429 slash line in just eight at-bats, this next week.
Vols win a contested series over Georgia State
Tennessee moves forward to a week that looked pretty easy before the season, but should be a good challenge for this team.
The Vols start off the week with a midweek matchup at Austin Peay on Wednesday.
On the weekend Tennessee will face Georgia State, a team that was picked to finish last in its division of the Sun Belt in the preseason but has split a four game series with a ranked West Virginia team, and went 1-3 at Vanderbilt, playing two very competitive games.
The Panthers are far from a marquee match-up and shouldn’t be able to beat Tennessee in a three-game series, but I don’t expect Tennessee to blow them out the way they did Arkansas- Pine Bluff.
I think the Vols bounce back with a series win, maybe even a series sweep, but expect some competitive match-ups.