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NCAA Baseball Preview: The Knoxville Regional

Tennessee huddles before a game against Florida.
Members of the Tennessee baseball huddle up before facing rival Florida. Image by Logan Quinton.

KNOXVILLE, TN – May 16, 2021 – Head Coach Tony Vitello of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Now that the NCAA baseball tournament field is set, let’s take a look at what is slated to be one of the most competitive regions of all the opening sections. The Knoxville Region will consist of Tennessee, Wright State, Duke, and Liberty. All four teams rank inside the top 40 in RPI, according to D1 Baseball.

Here’s what’s in store on Rocky Top this weekend.

Tennessee (No. 3 overall NCAA seed)

The host site for this region is Lindsey Nelson Stadium, home to the No.3 Volunteers (45-16, 20-10). It will be UT’s second straight tournament appearance, marking the first time the Vols have entered a regional in consecutive full seasons. Their 2019 showing was the first since 2005.

The Volunteers got here by displaying an extreme amount of plate discipline both in the box and on the mound. UT ranks third nationally in K/BB (3.64) and fifth in drawing walks (309). Their weekend starters – Chad Dallas, Will Heflin, and Blade Tidwell – have combined for a 20-7 record and 3.92 ERA. The Vols are also backed by a stellar bullpen. Tennessee holds a collective 3.38 ERA, good for seventh in the NCAA.

On the offensive side, Liam Spence sets the tone. As a first-team All-SEC selection, Spence leads the conference in OBP (.493). The senior is also hitting .342, with seven hits and three walks in his past four games. Spence has 51 BB on the year to only 44 SO.

The man playing along the shortstop’s right side is senior Jake Rucker. The third baseman joins Spence with conference accolades, while earning All-American honors by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Rucker slashed .332/.402/.508 while leading the Volunteers in total bases (124). The senior has also garnered a reputation as Tennessee’s most consistent player.

Wright State (No. 4 seed in the region)

The Horizon League champion comes to Knoxville for the second time in as many years. Before last season’s abrupt halt, the Raiders traveled to Rocky Top to take on the Vols in a weekend series. WSU won the three-game set, taking two games from UT before the season shut down the following week. Those victories proved to be Tennessee’s only losses of the year.

Wright State (35-11, 28-4) brings an impressive resume despite playing just 13 games out of conference. The Raiders won the Horizon in a decisive fashion while posting national-leading numbers across the board. WSU ranks first in the NCAA in batting average (.342), doubles per game (2.74), and OBP (.451). It also sits alone as the highest-scoring team, driving in 488 runs in just 46 games.

The key Raider will be Quincy Hamilton. The redshirt junior garnered Player of the Year honors from the Horizon League. An outfielder with some pitching experience, Hamilton brings even more versatility to the plate. The junior has 14 home runs to go along with 20 stolen bases.

While Hamilton didn’t face a single Vol pitcher last season, all nine Wright State batters that logged time against Tennessee in 2020 returned to the latest roster. The Raiders outscored the Volunteers 12-10 in that series.

Will WSU continue its success against UT? The program is 0-11 versus other SEC opponents dating back to 2020. We’ll find out Friday at 6 p.m. ET, as these two programs square off for the fourth time in two seasons.

Duke (No.2 seed in the region)

The Blue Devils come to the Knoxville Region as champions of the ACC Tournament. As an automatic qualifier, Duke (32-20, 16-17) has won 12 straight games despite a losing conference record.  The Devils sat at 10 conference wins with two weekend series to left on the schedule. After two sweeps, Duke rolled through Charlotte as a nine seed to grab a No.2 regional spot in the NCAA tourney.

The Devils will look to keep slugging their way through opponents, as they rank 22nd in the nation in SLG%(.472) and first in the ACC in total bases (848). The offense will have to compensate for poor defensive support. Duke ranks 12th in the conference in FLD% (.967), highlighted by 62 errors.

Senior Joey Loperfido is the key cog for the DU. The senior earned All-SEC second-team honors while leading the league in hits (70). The utility is hitting .363 with a .465 OBP.

The most interesting storyline – outside of DU’s winning streak – is the potential meeting between the Devils and Vols. Duke’s Director of Athletics, Kevin White, is the father of UT’s athletic director, Danny White.

Liberty (NCAA at-large, No.3 seed in the region)

The Flames come in looking to rekindle the spark that fueled them to 39 wins. Liberty (39-14, 19-2) capped off a spectacular season with a disappointing showing in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship.

Despite losing to Jacksonville (16-32, 3-15) for the tourney bling, LU looks to bounce back in Knoxville as they are set to face Duke at noon ET on Friday. The Flames have been formidable against quality competition this year. Liberty holds a 5-3 record against ACC opponents this season. However, two of those losses came against the Devils.

One glaring difference in both of those contests was the absence of Trevor Delaite. Liberty’s flame-thrower didn’t appear in either of those games. The senior heads a staff that ranks 10th in the NCAA in ERA (3.44). With 100 frames of service to his 2021 resume, Delaite has logged the second-most innings in the country. The lefty has an ERA of 1.98 and is 11-1 on the year.

The key here is Duke’s ability to stay hot versus the Flames. Delaite’s presence might be enough to burn the Devils in Liberty’s third attempt.

 

Predictions

 

The biggest factor in the Liberty/Duke matchup is the discrepancy in fielding defense between the two clubs. The Flames have half as many errors as the Devils on the season and rank second in the NCAA in FLD% (.984). Duke won’t be able to slug its way through Delaite or the rest of the staff. While sitting atop the ACC in bases and slugging, DU also ranks first in GIDP (32).

The Blue Devils’ hot streak will come to a screeching halt. They go 0-2 and get bounced out of Knoxville after battling a tough Liberty team – only to face WSU or UT.

 

Wright State and Tennessee will face each other multiple times to decide who moves on to the super regional. These teams are well-acquainted and that won’t change. The games between the Vols and Raiders will have a super feel to them.

 

Tennessee takes the Friday night game. The boys in orange usually have some extra juice when Dallas is on the mound. The Vols are averaging 6.5 runs this season when the junior takes the bump. They are going to need that type of production from the bats, though. Dallas has an alarming 1.6 HR/9 mark to go along with a 4.07 ERA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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