VolQuest - The Baseball 3-2-1
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The Baseball 3-2-1

STARKVILLE — No. 1 Tennessee concluded the regular season over the weekend with its first ever sweep of Mississippi State in Starkville. It was only the second time ever the Vols had swept the Bulldogs.

We look back at the series win and look ahead to the SEC Tournament in this week's baseball 3-2-1.

THREE OBSERVATIONS

Tennessee’s offense explodes in Starkville

There were side conversations here and there from some Tennessee fans about the offense’s performance in recent weeks. The Vols quickly put those conversations to bed, however, scoring 41 runs on 42 hits this weekend in Starkville.

Whether it be the warm weather or the simple fact that school is now over with, the Vols’ offense was in prime form the final weekend of the regular season. Just in time to head to Hoover, Alabama for the SEC Tournament.

Five of Tennessee’s nine regular starters hit .400 or better for the weekend, while six of them tallied three RBIs or more.

Luc Lipcius (.583), Drew Gilbert (.583) and Evan Russell (.500) led the Vols at the plate, while Trey Lipscomb (.417) and Jorel Ortega (.400) weren’t too far behind, respectively.

Seth Stephenson also had a strong weekend, hitting .273 and driving in four runs. Freshman Blake Burke started all three games at designated hitter and took advantage by hitting a three-run home run in Thursday’s historic 27-2 win.

Chase Dollander is elite

Good luck finding a college arm better than Chase Dollander’s. There may be some top arms that are in the same group as Dollander, but the sophomore right-hander has asserted himself as the leader of the top tier in college baseball.

There’s a reason Dollander is already being discussed as a top five pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. His performance on Thursday night against Mississippi State was further evidence.

Dollander no-hit the Bulldogs for six innings and it weren’t for the offense scoring seven runs in a lengthy seventh inning of their historic 27-2 win, he would have gone back out for the bottom of the seventh in pursuit of a no-hitter.

Still, Dollander was nearly perfect, allowing just one walk over his six scoreless innings of work. He struck out six on 67 pitches, 48 of which were strikes.

Blade Tidwell is back

The prediction in last week’s 3-2-1 was that ‘Blade Tidwell breaks out.’ And boy did he.

Tidwell looked like the Tidwell everyone expected coming into the season. Not that it was his fault that he hadn’t. He missed the first month and a half of the season due to shoulder soreness and then had to build his way back up, knocking the rust off.

Consider the rust knocked off. Tidwell dominated the Bulldogs for three innings out of the bullpen in game two following a strong Chase Burns performance.

The right-hander entered in the bottom of the seventh after State had taken a 3-1 lead, worked the Vols out of further damage by striking out three straight Bulldogs, and then proceeded to pitch two more scoreless innings — after Drew Gilbert’s clutch two-run home run — to close out the win.

Tidwell didn’t allow a hit, a walk or a run as he struck out six. 30 of his 42 pitches were strikes.

TWO QUESTIONS

Who starts game one in Hoover?

It’s no coincidence that Blade Tidwell came out of the bullpen against Mississippi State. It was no punishment either.

Tennessee elected to follow Dollander’s start with the true freshmen — Burns in game two and Drew Beam in the series finale — to round out the weekend rotation. The other part of the plan was to have Tidwell throw two to three innings at some point in preparation of starting the opener of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday afternoon.

The plan worked out perfectly. Each of the four likely starters in Hoover got work over the weekend, even if some got more than the other, but they all should theoretically be fresh entering the postseason.

What will the pitching plans look like for the week?

So, what does Tennessee's pitching plan look like for the week in Hoover?

Unless UT changes its mind, Tidwell will start the opener when Tennessee plays the winner of Tuesday’s game between 8-seed Vanderbilt and 9-seed Ole Miss. First pitch for the Vols on Wednesday will be at 4:30 p.m. CT time.

After that, Dollander would likely start on Thursday considering he’s started the past two Thursdays and would still be in line with regionals the following weekend.

Then it becomes more of an interesting conversation. If the Vols win on both Wednesday and Thursday, they’ll have Friday off, and play in a game Saturday afternoon to advance to the SEC Tournament Championship Game on Sunday.

The safe bet is to think that Burns would start game three in Hoover for the Vols, whether that be Friday or Saturday. Burns had pitched on Friday all season long until this weekend when he started game two against State.

After Burns, the Vols have several options. They could start Beam in their fourth game of the week, or they could turn to Camden Sewell or Ben Joyce, who each have starting experience.

With Beam, Sewell or Joyce the likely options for a Saturday start, the two who do not could also start on Sunday. Tennessee could even start Tidwell on short rest in the Tournament final.

ONE PREDICTION

Tennessee takes the crown in Hoover

As evident by the last question, Tennessee has what feels like a million options this week in Hoover when it comes to decisions with the pitching staff. It’s a great problem to have.

It’s one that no other team in the SEC can say it has. The Vols have by far the most pitching depth in the SEC and that’s why they will win this year’s SEC Tournament.

Sure, the bats will need to show up, they’ll need to play great defense and they’ll need to continue to eliminate base running mistakes, but even if the offense is having an off day, Tennessee’s pitching depth can buy them time to get going just like like they did in game two at Mississippi State.

Nobody in the SEC has more talent than Tennessee. Nobody comes close to being the baseball team that UT is. The Vols won’t easily win the tournament this week as competition will still be stiff, but the amount of talent and depth on the team will be the reason they get the job done.