The next wave of Top 25 rankings was released on Monday. While Tennessee baseball slightly fell after a tough weekend against Vanderbilt, the Vols still have reason to be confident about their spot in the championship picture.
Over the weekend, Tennessee lost two of three games against Vanderbilt but showed their strength in a win on Saturday.
On Monday, the Vols slightly dropped in each of the three major Top 25 publications. They moved from No. 5 to No. 6 on D1 Baseball, from No. 5 to No. 7 on Baseball America, and from No. 3 to No. 5 on USA Today Sports.
The Vols still hold onto a Top 10 record in all three and didn’t drop more than two spots in any of them.
So while they’re (slightly) down, Tennessee certainly isn’t out.
The Vols proved over the weekend they can not only go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country, but they can also hit and get on base on the expected No. 1 draft pick.
Evan Russell’s diving catch in foul territory landed at No. 2 on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays. @Vol_Baseball @FOXSportsKnox pic.twitter.com/dkBM6Jubpr
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) April 17, 2021
In fact, Tony Vitello’s boys have been proving that. They took care of preseason No. 1 Florida in Knoxville last weekend. What is looming out in the distance on Tennessee’s schedule, though? The current No. 1 team in the nation, Arkansas.
The series with the Hogs will take place at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in the middle of May.
Even though Tennessee failed to take the Vanderbilt series, there are many standout moments from the weekend that should help retain the confidence that the team, and the fans, had headed into the weekend.
Whether reviewing the pitching, hitting, or defensive plays in the field, Tennessee has plenty to go over from the series and plenty to be excited about for the second half of the season.
The Tennessee baseball team had two solid starting outings from the weekend.
Although, they struggled in the final game on Sunday with Blade Tidwell as the starter. But really, so did Vanderbilt’s starter. In the end, it was a long and exhausting weekend for both teams.
On Friday, Chad Dallas had an excellent performance in his first registered loss of the season. In fact, it would look even better had it not been directly across from Kumar Rocker’s two-hit line.
Dallas threw seven innings on Friday and only gave up three runs on five hits. He never gave up more than one run in an inning against the fourth-highest scoring team in the SEC.
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Will Heflin gave the Tennessee baseball team everything he had. The fifth-year senior had to be masterful going up against expected No. 1 overall pick jack Leiter.
And he was.
He pitched seven innings and in those only gave up four runs on five hits. Heflin pitched five straight scoreless innings to start the game, and all three of Vanderbilt’s runs in the sixth came off of a Volunteer error.
If Tennessee can have similar strong outings against their remaining opponents, they could wind up on a roll here to close the season. The Vols currently have the fifth-ranked ERA among SEC teams (3.68 ERA). However, the good news is that they are still within only 0.35 of everyone ahead of them. Well, except for Vanderbilt.
Three of Tennessee’s final five conference series will be against three of the bottom four hitting teams. South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Missouri rank No. 11, No. 13, and No. 14 respectively regarding batting average in the SEC. However, their other two matchups, Arkansas and Kentucky, are ranked No. 4 and No. 5 each.
Tennessee will have chances to not only gain confidence but also put themselves to the test before the postseason. Not too bad.
Before you dive into Tennessee’s offensive hitting numbers, buckle up. Things get a little weird.
Over the weekend, Tennessee did not score on Friday, belted eight runs on Saturday, and four runs on Sunday. Evan Russell delivered a Grand Slam for the ages during the second game.
Evan Russell has had himself a WEEKEND so far…
-3 HR's in one game
-Go Ahead Grand Slam
-Diving Catch No. 2 on SportsCenter Top 10
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) April 17, 2021
But let’s skip straight to the numbers.
Tennessee comes in at No. 4 in the SEC in on-base percentage (.385). They also rank No. 3 in runs scored (259), No. 4 in runs batted in (237), and No. 2 in both doubles (72) and in triples (11).
Clearly, Tennessee is one of the best teams in the conference at getting on base. Tennessee is the second most walked team in the SEC behind only Arkansas, which likely is a direct link between Vitello’s time spent between both programs.
The Vols are a disciplined, savvy, smart-hitting baseball team as they have been all year. They play a little Moneyball style. Not in the way that they are scouted and brought onto the team, but in the sense that getting on base matters above all else.
Where things start to get a little interesting, though, is in the batting average department. The Vols have the third-worst batting average in the conference (.264), which stands out compared to those other great stats.
The Vols can get on base extremely well, and a rise in batting average will even help mitigate some of Tennessee’s left-on-base problems. But even saying that… the Vols are ranked fourth in RBI’s. So it’s not even like the Tennessee is a sinking ship when it comes to getting runs in via the live ball. It’s just saying the SEC is pretty darn good.
All in all, the batting average stat is a little misleading. The Vols are 0.024 points better than Missouri, who is last. If you added 0.024 to Tennessee, it would be good for fourth in the conference.
So, the Vols are as close to being No. 4 in the SEC as Missouri is to not being ranked last over Tennessee.
The Tennessee baseball team did not win the series over the weekend. In one game, they didn’t even score a run. But when you look at the numbers and combine that with what Tennessee did on Saturday, you know one thing to be true. This team can win and compete against anyone.
Tennessee, especially in this current season, has to be better than everyone else when it comes to defensive fielding prowess.
Because they rank No. 1 in the SEC in terms of the number of opportunities for a fielding play (1,408).
Let’s put it this way. Tennessee is tied for No. 3 in fielding percentage with Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn (0.977). However, for Tennessee, that comes out to about 1,375 successful fielding chances. But for, say, Auburn, the No. 12 team in terms of opportunities, has about 1,151 successful plays. With the same percentage!
Tennessee may have a similar fielding percentage compared to other teams, but they have to be better than anyone else if they are getting the most chances by far. If the Vols have 100 more opportunities in a series than Auburn does, with the same percentage, Tennessee would still theoretically have three more errors.
That’s not to discredit any of Tennessee’s ability or highlight an area of concern. It’s just to point out the fact that with more opportunities comes more responsibility.
Over the weekend, Vanderbilt certainly took advantage of Tennessee’s mistakes. During Friday’s game, Vanderbilt had an unearned run on an error in the second and the eighth innings. Then on Saturday, three of their four runs were unearned due to one error.
The best teams in the country and in the conference will do just that. Take advantage of your mistakes and turn errors into unearned runs. Any chance that the Tennessee baseball team can have to eliminate that potential as a whole, they need to take advantage of it.
The Tennessee baseball team returns to Lindsey-Nelson Stadium on Tuesday, Apr. 20.
The Vols (29-8, 10-5 SEC) will take on Tennessee Tech in a one-game series beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It will be broadcasted on ESPN’s SEC Network +.
The Golden Eagles (12-16, 6-9 OVC) head into Knoxville after winning one of three on the road against Southeast Missouri. Meanwhile, the Vols will look to regain some confidence before traveling to College Station to play the Texas A&M Aggies.
Tennessee will send out right-handed pitcher Jason Rackers to the mound, as the redshirt junior is 1-0 on the year after a win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2/23).
All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletic Communications
All 2021 SEC Baseball Team Stats Are From ESPN and Can Be Found Here.