The Georgia State Panthers (4-6) are looking to play spoiler as the No.17 Tennessee Volunteers (8-2) search for their second weekend series victory of the year.
Last week, Indiana State presented a constant threat to the Vols in a four-game set, as the two split the series.
This time it’s a pesky squad from the Sun-Belt Conference looking to ruin Tennessee’s plans. The Panthers bring overlooked talent as well as a tendency to play up to their competition. The Vols are a man down and looking for players to mend some gaps.
Here is a look at what could be a very dynamic series.
Panthers On The Prowl
Despite winning 15 games in 2019, State got off to a good start during last season’s brief existence. The Panthers went 9-7 a year ago, including a win against Cincinnati in the season opener. Georgia State won four of its last five in the shortened campaign, averaging 6.5 runs in those contests.
Leading the way offensively for the Panthers is second-year freshman Will Mize. The shortstop is batting .412 in 34 at-bats. Mize, who earned All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball in 2020, also has two home runs and eight RBI to add to an impressive 10-game stretch to open 2021. Mize finished with 17 RBI last season, good for ranking eighth among freshmen in the country.
Georgia State’s potential on the mound starts with sophomore Ryan Watson. The pitcher has top-end talent, offering an improved fastball, complemented by a plus slider and a good changeup. Watson’s development has produced a drastic difference in results, so far. After posting a career ERA of 6.71 from 2019 to 2020, the righthander is working through opponents at a tune of 14 strikeouts to zero walks in the new season. His 10 IP has resulted in a current ERA of 1.80.
One storyline to watch surrounds freshman Mason Patel. The Knoxville native makes a return to his hometown with a solid college start under his belt. Patel leads the Panthers in IP with 11. The product from The Webb School product has settled in nicely for GSU, logging 10 SO and just one walk. Patel is listed by Perfect Game as being the No.14 RHP overall from the state in the 2020 class. The composite also notes that the pitcher has a wide arsenal, led a progressive fastball.
Watson and Patel have played a huge part in creating a narrative for State that’s gaining more traction by each superior opponent on its schedule.
The Panthers have beaten three ranked teams in just 10 contests. Two of those victories came against top-10 clubs. Last Friday, Watson led GSU to an upset win over a No.2 Vanderbilt squad. On Wednesday, Patel shutout No.10 Georgia Tech in six innings, en route to a 10-1 victory.
Georgia State also split a series with West Virginia to begin the season. In a scheduled doubleheader, the Panthers took two wins from the Mountaineers, outscoring WVU 27-10.
Huge Hole to Fill
Aside from not getting the edge in the last weekend series, Tennessee comes into this slate missing one of its key pieces.
Senior Jackson Leath went down in the first inning after surrendering his first hit against Indiana State. The right-hander grabbed his left leg as he lay on the turf at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The injury is reported to be a hamstring issue, but the timetable for return is indefinite. Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on Thursday that Leath’s length of absence would be “significant.”
In the meantime, the Vols have junior Chad Dallas as their lead arm. The righty has 16 SO in 11.1 IP while holding batters to a .239 average. Dallas holds a career ERA of 3.03 and has yet to record a loss in 32.2 IP.
Other complements, such as junior Elijah Pleasants and senior Sean Hunley, have risen to the occasion.
Pleasants is coming off an impressive relief victory against Austin Peay, where he shutout the Hilltoppers in the final six innings. The Vols trailed 3-0 when Pleasants entered the game.
Hunley hasn’t made a start in 2021, but that might change this weekend. The senior has a .55 WHIP in 12.2 IP. While Hunley has been impressive out of the pen, Vitello may have to interject the righthander into the starting lineup to fend off the Panthers. Hunley has held opponents to a .136 BA in 44 at-bats.
How Vols Can Escape
Friday’s tilt has the makings to be a premier showcase of two extreme talents. The potential of Dallas versus Watson is enough to make any scout drool. The Volunteers have won some intense battles and should be conditioned to withstand any surprises from GSU.
On the other hand, Georgia State is prepped for knocking off elite teams.
Tennessee will have to get ahead of State and stay busy on the base paths. The team found itself in early deficits in both losses to ISU. The Volunteers faced a nine-run disadvantage through the first five innings in those defeats.
Sophomore Jordan Beck is 12th in the nation in total bases, as he leads the Vols in home runs (3) and RBI (12). Preseason All-Americans Connor Pavolony and Max Ferguson have to find a way to generate more offense. The two combine for just 18 TB.
Tennessee welcomes another tough opponent to Knoxville, but this time they can’t share wins and losses. The result of this three-game series will go a long way in defining how well the Vols can manage adversity, which is sure to continue as conference play looms closer.