As the SEC regular-season sets to expire over the next few weeks, the No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers (34-11, 14-7) are looking to finish strong. Thanks to some recent performances of a few key players, the Vols are developing traits of a team that can cause more damage as postseason play approaches.
A Tennessee Trend
Tennessee has completed 80% of its regular-season slate. The Vols have simply been consistent and resilient the whole way. The only series loss UT has experienced is against Vanderbilt. The Commodores took two games in an electric Rocky Top environment.
Tennessee has taken lumps but has been very responsive when things start to look bleak. After a 9-0 loss away from home against Charlotte in early March, UT went on to win 11 of its next 12 contests. That stretch consisted of two conference series wins, including a sweep of No. 14 LSU at home.
After the Vandy loss, the Vols rushed College Station by scoring 31 runs in the series. Tennessee then lost to Lipscomb 4-1 before exploding for 27 runs against Kentucky last weekend. UT has scored 47 runs in the past four conference games.
You see the trend.
The Vols have the luxury of some reliable veterans. They also have young faces starting to find a groove.
Senior Liam Spence keeps the lineup turning by boasting a .384 average and an insane .524 OBP. Junior Max Ferguson is second on the team – only behind Spence – in walks, earning 36 on the season. Despite a .241 BA, the junior has a .381 OBP. The two roommates usually offer a one-two punch at the top of the order. No matter where they hit, they bring a consistent approach and steady force – both in the field and at the plate.
What’s really pushed this offense over the edge lately is the emergence of sophomore Jordan Beck. After hitting three home runs in the first five games of the season, Beck went through a drought. The right fielder couldn’t put one over the fence for 11 games. Then, Beck hit two moon shots in a game versus ETSU. One was a walk-off homer.
Along the way, Beck’s average declined. After the LSU series, the sophomore was sitting .215. Since that point, Beck’s performance at the plate has been progressive. He is now hitting .262, with a .829 OPS. Beck is coming off a weekend where he scorched the Wildcats. The sophomore recorded seven hits and four RBI against Kentucky.
Arms to Help
The weekend trio of Chad Dallas, Will Heflin, and freshman Blade Tidwell have a combined 14-5 record to go with a 3.87 ERA.
Senior Sean Hunley and sophomore Kirby Connell have been just as secure. The two relievers have logged 82 innings, collecting 84 SO and allowing just 14 BB.
The Hunley-Connell duo peaked at the right time. When senior Redmond Walsh struggled early, the pair carried the load for the Vols’ bullpen.
Walsh, named on the Preseason Stopper of the Year watch list, came into the season ranking third in Tennessee’s all-time saves category (16). But the senior struggled with pitch usage, leading to a stretch where the Vol closer gave up nine runs and 16 hits in 14.1 IP.
In his last 7.2 IP, Walsh has given up just four hits, which all came in one appearance. The other three have been flawless. The senior has eight SO in his last two outings. He has surrendered zero bases during this run, aside from the four-hit performance at Texas A&M.
What’s Next for Tennessee
The Volunteers travel to Columbia, Missouri, to face a lowly Tigers squad. UM (12-29, 5-16) has the fewest overall wins in the conference but is in a three-way tie at the bottom of the league standings.
This is an opportunity for the Vols to build on their consistency while allowing some essential players to surface. A series sweep is in sight. Tennessee is off to its best start in the conference in 26 years, winning 2/3 of its SEC games to start the season.
Other key players to watch:
Sophomores Will Mabrey and Matt McLaughlin have combined for 34.1 IP and a 1.74 ERA. Mabrey has seven SO after facing 20 batters, while McLaughlin leads the team with a .108 BAA.