It's Baseball Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. Mississippi State Preview (April 27-29)
Recently: What a difference a week makes. Just a few days ago I was writing about how improbable it was going to be for Tennessee to even approach .500 in SEC play and hoping the Vols wouldn't get swept at home by Vandy. And for much of Friday's game one, it looked like Tennessee was on the way to a fifth straight loss and an even deeper hole in the conference standings.
Then Kavares Tears led off the bottom of the 9th with a homer. Then Dylan Dreiling stepped into the box and ripped a two-out home run that gave UT a second chance in extra innings. Then the Chase Burns redemption arc began with fury and emotion the likes of which we haven't seen from 2022's Freshman of the Year all season. Then Griffin Merritt's solo shot to lead off the bottom of the 12th cleared the fence, and Tennessee had a desperately-needed victory to kick off the series.
But more than that. It felt like something had changed by the time Merritt rounded third on the way to stomp on home plate. It felt like a switch had flipped and this group of Vols who had wondered through the first half of the SEC season with no identity had started to find themselves. That feeling seems to have borne itself out in the subsequent games: a 17-1, 7-inning run-rule win against a milquetoast effort by Vandy on Saturday; and a 10-5 victory against a Vandy lineup that showed a little more life on Sunday (plus Tuesday's 19-1 win over Bellarmine).
Meanwhile, Mississippi State went 1-2 against Auburn over the weekend, but did beat Ole Miss on Tuesday in a "Governor's Cup" game that does not count in the SEC standings.
Previously on Vols vs. Bulldogs: Tennessee is 34-60 all-time against State. It's a little more even (16-20) when games are played in Knoxville. UT is 5-5 in the last 10, including 4 straight over the last two years.
What to Watch: MSU first baseman Hunter Hines is among the SEC leaders in home runs, but also strikeouts. Second baseman Amani Larry has a last name for a first name and vice versa and has been hit by 13 pitches this year, 4th most in the SEC. I don't know if the name thing correlates with people throwing at him, but I haven't ruled it out. Do with that as you will. Here's the KAT STATSTM:
MSU has not named a starter for Friday's game 2, so I've listed the two guys they've used in that spot recently. Saturday, however, you'll see Jurrangelo Cijntje, the ambidextrous pitcher:
I was hoping when I saw BHP (both-hand pitcher) that Cijnte would deliver the ball chest-pass style, or maybe like a soccer throw-in. Instead he wears a special glove that allows him to switch between a right-handed and left-handed delivery.
Tony Vitello has decided to stick with the same pitching rotation as the last two weekends, so we will see Burns out of the pen again this series. Can the energy that seemed to radiate from Burns continue another weekend? Can the bats stay as hot as they've been since the late innings Friday night? The Vols have an opportunity that seemed impossible just a week ago. A series win would keep the momentum swing in UT's favor. But with a sweep Tennessee would climb to 11-10 in the SEC. Dare to dream?
The good news is Mississippi State is easily the worst SEC team Tennessee has faced since the Texas A&M series. In fact MSU (#37) is just a few spots ahead of A&M (#44) in RPI. Going by that same metric though, UT at #30 isn't that far ahead of State. There's the bad news--it's on paper the easiest opponent Tennessee has faced in weeks, and it still won't be easy. Such is life in the SEC.