It's Baseball Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. Vanderbilt Series Preview (April 21-23)
Recently: Look, I'm not one for hot takes. I like to marinate my takes. Dry-age them even. But still the most reasonable take I can muster about Tennessee's baseball season up to this point is, well, it's pretty bad. In each series against LSU and Florida, Tennessee won game 3, leaving the living fan with hope. It was even reasonable to look at one game or another in each of those series and think "if just this or that had gone the other way...."
But going to Arkansas and getting swept by a team that is probably not better than either LSU or Florida, and not looking particularly competitive doing it, while still having the same problems that have plagued the squad all season--it's rough, boy. Questionable fielding, questionable baserunning. Inexplicable pitching from a staff that's supposed to be one of the best nationally. Milquetoast hitting. UT left 21 runners on base in the Arkansas series. That's a total of 53 stranded runners over the past two weekends and a 1-5 record in those six games.
What's even more frustrating as a fan is that this team seems to have no identity. If they were struggling but showing tremendous effort or grit that would be one thing. Tony Vitello said as much following the Arkansas series: "I'm worried about this team playing tough enough. At the end of the day, you want to hang your hat on something. There's only going to be one team that wins the last game of the year this year, so if you're hanging your hat on wins and losses only, you're chasing a ghost." And while I put almost no stock in midweek results, seeing UT respond to a sweep by Arkansas with a 5-12 loss against a pretty bad Tennessee Tech team doesn't exactly scream toughness.
If you're looking for a silver lining, it's that the meat grinder of a schedule that the SEC throws at you gives you an opportunity to compete at every turn. At CFAJ, we subscribe to the Ric Flair theory of being The Man, and every weekend series seems to give an opportunity to beat The Man. UT will have the opportunity to make a statement against #4 Vanderbilt, who took 2 of 3 last weekend against South Carolina (though they did drop their midweek game against Indiana State).
Previously on Vols vs. 'Dores: As an example of how quickly things can turn around in this game, it was just a year ago that Tennessee went to Nashville and swept Vandy in what you might remember as the Mike Honcho series:
Tennessee also beat the Commodores in the 2022 SEC Tournament en route to a tournament title. Ah, better times.
What to Watch: Tennessee seemed to have made big moves in the offseason by bringing in transfers Maui Ahuna, Griffin Merritt, and Zane Denton--each of which has run hot and cold all season. Meanwhile, RJ Scheck--a Vandy graduate transfer from Duke--is leading the Commodores in most offensive categories. Vanderbilt's lineup is solid top to bottom, few league leaders but lots of guys that put up consistent numbers. The KAT STATSTM:
Vandy's pitching is much like their hitting, solid from top to bottom. (Note that the listed probable starters are based on last weekend's games--neither team has named starters as of Thursday afternoon.)
What stands out to me is how good a defensive team the 'Dores are, second best in fielding % and top of the SEC in throwing out would-be base stealers. Meanwhile, Tennessee is at or near the bottom of the league in both of those categories.
UT stands at 5-10 in SEC play halfway through the conference season. A 10-5 record in the second half would have me checking Tennessee's water coolers to see if Vitello turned them into wine. But can the Vols go at or near .500 over this second half? 7-8 would put them at 12-18 for the SEC season. Anything worse than that and you're likely looking at missing the tournament altogether. D1baseball.com currently has Tennessee as a 3 seed in Indiana's regional (with the Hoosiers as the #16 overall seed).
How easy it was to write off being swept by Missouri last month as "growing pains". But that sweep by a middling team put even more pressure on these series against the SEC's--and the nation's--top teams. There's a lot of work to do between now and the end of May, but also plenty of opportunity to get it done.