No.4 Tennessee (38-11, 17-7) will host No.1 Arkansas (37-9, 17-7) in what will be the Vols’ second top-five showdown of the season.
The last time UT had a chance to contend for a top spot in the national rankings came against a No.2 Vanderbilt team last month. The Volunteers failed to win the series, but made a statement during the battle, by winning a Saturday game in dramatic fashion.
This time around, head coach Tony Vitello calls on his players’ nucleus and says that sharp determination is key to taking down the Razorbacks. Both teams are tied for first in the conference standings.
Listen here (17:30-44:30) to see what Vitello had to say on The Drive about this weekend’s historic matchup. The Vols’ head coach also gets in a game of Jam or No Jam? with the guys of Fanrun.
In addition, here is Fanrun’s preview of the upcoming series.
On Wednesday, Vitello said that the key for Tennessee would be its ability to stay calm and locked in. “Offensively for our guys, I think the big theme is for them to control their adrenaline,” Vitello said on The Drive.
The focus that the head coach is referring to is the perspective that UT lacked in a couple of games against Vandy. The Vols came out flat in a 0-5 Friday night home loss. They also dropped the Sunday game, 4-10, in that series.
Arkansas and Tennessee entered the week first and second, respectively, in the SEC in RBI. The difference being that the Hawgs have belted 79 home runs to the Vols’ 65.
It will be key for Tennessee starters Chad Dallas (8-1, 3.86) and Will Heflin (2-2, 4.17) to keep the ball in the park. Both have a 1.6 HR/9 rate on the season. Meanwhile, freshman Blade Tidwell (6-2, 3.71) is averaging .7 HR/9.
“I think the pitching staff needs to realize that they’ve got the ball in their hand and that they dictate the action,” Vitello said. “So, if they execute the pitches that are being called by coach Frank Anderson or that they shake to, then I think we’ll be in the same position we’ve been in all year long. We’ll have a chance to win.”
The Vols came into the week ranking second in the conference in team ERA (3.47). UT is fourth in the nation in SO/BB rate, with a mark of 3.71. The pitching staff has remained consistent despite an early-season injury to senior Jackson Leath.
Arkansas’ pitching staff isn’t as well-rounded, but they have a couple of elite talents. Senior Patrick Wicklander is the Hawgs’ premier starter, tossing 53.1 innings while maintaining a sub-2.00 ERA this season. The left-hander will be the Friday starter going against Dallas. Wicklander has 58 SO to just 14 BB in 2021.
The big Hawg for Arkansas is senior Kevin Kopps, who Vitello describes as “arguably one of the best closers in the country.”
The versatile righty has an SEC-leading .72 ERA through 49.2 IP. Kopps is 7-0 with seven saves this season.
“He is a guy that they’re using for three or four innings a time, or a total of 6 innings over a weekend,” Vitello said.
The Vols’ version of Kopps, Jackson Leath, was sidelined for the year after tearing a hamstring in his first start of the season.
Tennessee has since relied on a few relief hands to pair with a stellar starting rotation. Seniors Sean Hunley and Redmond Walsh have performed well of late. Walsh has surrendered just one ER in his past five appearances, while Hunley has allowed two in his past six outings.
Aside from Hunley, sophomore Kirby Connell has been Tennessee’s most active arm out of the pen. Connell has 21 appearances on the season and has maintained a .99 WHIP. The lefty has been solid in his last three SEC outings, going 4.2 IP without allowing a run. Connell has surrendered just two walks on the year through 38.1 IP.
Arkansas’ Advantage Over Tennessee
The biggest factor for the Vols will be the absence of junior Connor Pavolony. The catcher has missed significant time since being hit in the hand by a Vanderbilt pitcher on April 17.
Vitello told The Drive on Wednesday that Pavolony is unlikely to play versus Arkansas.
“If this were the postseason he would probably be suiting up in some capacity this weekend. But for now, we’re going to check in with the doctors tomorrow and go from there,” Vitello said.
The preseason All-American was just starting to come around for Tennessee in the box. All four of Pavolony’s home runs have come in the last six games he’s played.
Graduate transfer Jackson Greer has filled in nicely for the Vols’ junior. Greer is hitting .297 with three home runs and nine RBI. While an offensive uptick has been nice from the catcher’s spot, the defensive side of things hasn’t been as stellar.
Even though Greer has just one error in 18 starts, the senior has only thrown out three of 32 runners from behind the dish.
For Arkansas, the position is solidified with some flexibility. Senior Casey Opitz was on the Buster Posey National Collegiate Cather of the Year Watch List in 2020. This season Opitz is hitting .273, collecting 10 hits in his last seven SEC games. The switch-hitting, right-thrower has caught 40 runners stealing out of 56 attempts.
The Hawgs also have junior Charlie Welch to spell Opitz. The junior is hitting .364 in 15 appearances. Welch has yet to commit an error through seven starts. He also boasts a .985 FLD%.
Where Tennessee Has an Edge
Tidwell has simply been outstanding for the Volunteers. The Loretto, Tennessee, native has been UT’s primary Sunday starter all season. Tidwell leads all freshmen in the conference in ERA (3.71). He is one of seven SEC pitchers to achieve that mark while logging 60 IP or more.
Outside of Wicklander and Kopps, the Arkansas pitching staff isn’t overwhelming. The Saturday starter will be sophomore Peyton Pallette. The right-hander has a 4.01 ERA through 51.2 IP. However, Pallette has an impressive 65 strikeouts through that span.
Sunday starts have been a toss-up for the Hawgs. Arkansas has given up 14 runs in their last two Sunday games. In a Saturday doubleheader two weeks ago, the Razorbacks allowed 14 as well, splitting the day with rival LSU.
It is vital for Tennessee to get out to early leads, especially on Friday. The Vols usually perform well for Dallas. The junior is 11-1 in his Volunteer career. Tennessee averages 5.8 runs while only surrendering four scores in Dallas’ starts this season.
Look for that trend to continue. It will almost certainly have to for the Vols to corral the Hawgs. Tennessee should have the edge Sunday. If they can get one win between the first two games in the series, the Vols will be looking at a great chance of feasting on the Razorbacks.