It's Baseball Time in Tennessee: Vols in the College World Series Preview (vs. LSU, Wake Forest, Stanford; June 17-22)

Recently: Earlier this year I decided to revive this blog after mothballing it nearly 15 years ago. As a means of scheduling regular content, I decided to write game previews for basketball and weekend series in baseball. In the middle of April, Tennessee had won just 1 of 5 SEC series having been freshly swept by Arkansas and even dropping an ugly midweek game to Tennessee Tech. The Vols were 5-10 in the SEC at that point and staring down another potential sweep with then-#2 Vanderbilt coming to town--and I was wondering how I was going to muster enough interest in this team to continue writing weekly previews on this site. 

Since that point, Tennessee completely inverted their season by sweeping Vandy and Mississippi State, and going on to win all but one of their remaining SEC series to run their record to a previously improbable 16-14 in the conference. The Vols are 20-6 overall since April 18. Other than a blip in the SEC tournament, Tennessee's postseason has been phenomenal, playing the college baseball game of the year against Clemson sandwiched between two dominant showings versus Charlotte, and closing out the Hattiesburg Super Regional with 13 unanswered runs in putting away Southern Miss. 

This team, which seemed lost and without identity halfway through the season, became the team that wouldn’t die. And of course you can't spell wouldn't without UT.

Previously on Vols in Omaha: UT is making its second College World Series appearance in the last three years and sixth appearance overall. The Vols bowed out of their last CWS early, coming in as the 3 seed but losing to Virginia and Texas in 2021. 

Tennessee played a series earlier this year against Saturday's opponent, LSU, dropping two of three in Baton Rouge. However, UT actually had a pretty good showing against LSU's ace (and arguably the best pitcher in America) Paul Skenes. The Vols only trailed by 1 when Skenes came out of the game. Tennessee later tied the game at 2 in the 8th inning before a UT fielding error broke the game open for the Tigers. 

What to Watch: As a reward for their heroic turnaround this season, Tennessee gets put in the same bracket as #1 overall seed Wake Forest, #4 seed and (#3 RPI-ranked) LSU, and the highest rated PAC-12 team, #8 Stanford. I'm going to give you stats as I always do, but I will warn you: it's not real pretty. Remember, all the other teams in this half of the bracket are chalk. By seed this pool would be #1, 4, 5, and 8--it's Tennessee that is playing spoiler here and there's a reason the Vols did not earn a national seed. First up, batting stats:

There's a lot of ways to measure hitting, I chose OPS here but you can see that most categories would be led by those top 10 hitters regardless of how they're sorted. LSU dominates this list (led by Dylan Crews), and only one Vol sits in the top 10 batters in this half of the bracket. That's Christian Moore, who was red-hot in Clemson (slashing .444/1.278/.543 with 4 HR, 8 RBI) but cooled considerably in Hattiesburg (.182/.273/.308, 0 HR, 0 RBI) You've got to dip into the next 10 to find Griffin Merritt and Zane Denton, followed by Maui Ahuna. Maui is a better hitter than I think a lot of our fan base gives him credit for, but he also leads this list in strikeouts unfortunately. 

The overall batting comparison isn't much better:

Tennessee is dead last in just about every batting stat you can name. They do have the most... strikeouts. Oh. The reality is that UT hasn't been bad at the plate so much as they have been inconsistent. They've stranded lots of runners over the course of the season and they've really struggled to get anything out of the 7-8-9 portion of the lineup. The pitching outlook is a little brighter:

I chose to sort this chart by innings pitched simply because coaches use pitchers in surprising ways in the postseason. Hopefully this chart shows who each team has relied on most over the course of the year. Besides, I could sort the list by ERA, which would drop Chase Dollander and Chase Burns pretty far down the chart, and still not really represent how they've thrown lately. The overall pitching outlook gives a better idea of how each staff has performed this year (sorted by ERA this time, not IP as the chart says): 

Tennessee looks much more poised to compete in this bracket with their pitching staff. That is somewhat tempered by the fact that Wake Forest has been widely accepted to have the best pitching staff in America this season, and LSU--as mentioned before--has probably the top single pitcher in Skenes. And that's to say nothing of Stanford, whose ERA does not look impressive here, but remember, they are the nationally seeded team here, not Tennessee.

So what are Tennessee's chances of advancing out of this bracket and into the championship round? It's going to be difficult. Step one is staying out of the loser's bracket as long as possible because it puts so much pressure on every single game after. Somebody will go 0-2 this weekend, that's just how the tournament is set up. Statistically, it should be UT that burns out first. 

But, Tennessee is also playing their best ball of the season right now. The pitching staff is living up to what they were supposed to be all season. A different set of bats got hot in Hattiesburg than did in Clemson--so the Vols aren't really leaning on one particular player to carry the offense. And the good news is with the pitching staff throwing as well as they have this postseason, you really only need one or two innings of offensive explosion to create enough distance to win. 

Tennessee has enough ability, motivation, and recent success to say they can go far in this bracket. Statistically, they shouldn't. Statically, they shouldn't have made it this far. But I'm excited to see what kind of life span the team that wouldn't die actually has. 


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