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Tennessee Baseball Preview: A Call to Arms for Historic Battle on Rocky Top

Tennessee huddles before a game against Florida.

History is on the line as the No.3 Tennessee Volunteers take on the No. 2 Vanderbilt Commodores this weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. The three-game series marks the first time in the rivalry that each squad resides inside the top five of a national composite. The Vols ranking is highest in the program’s tenure.

Here is a look at the unprecedented clash on Rocky Top.

An Embarrassment Of Riches

The obvious edge for the ‘Dores is the fact that they have two of the top prospects in all of college baseball. Junior Kumar Rocker and draft-eligible sophomore Jack Leiter are regarded as consensus top-three picks in this summer’s MLB draft. The pitchers have combined for 97 innings, tossing 157 strikeouts and allowing just 13 earned runs in 2021. To say the Volunteers are facing their stiffest cavalry from the mound is an understatement. Vanderbilt leads the SEC in ERA (2.75), BAA (.181), and saves (14).

This doesn’t mean that Tennessee is foreign to stellar pitching.

The Vols have faced a few starters this season that are in class right behind Rocker and Leiter. Geremy Guerrero (Indiana State), Tyler Owens (Georgia Southern), and Landon Marceaux (LSU) are three of just 15 NCAA pitchers – including Rocker and Leiter – to log 40 IP while holding a sub-2.00 ERA.

What Can Tennessee Do To Combat The Best Arsenal?

Tennessee and Arkansas are the only teams in the SEC that have yet to lose a series in conference play. Most of that consistency is fueled by UT’s patient approach at the plate. Tennessee is second in the league in walks and boasts a .392 OBP. While tolerant at the plate, the Vols get busy on the base paths. UT leads the league in stolen base attempts and is tied for second in sacrifice flies. The result is an efficient offense with 225 RBI, good for fourth in the conference behind Vandy (228).

What can put the Vols over the top?

An upswing in power from some of their most prized weapons – which haven’t been exactly firing – would be a nice start.

Juniors Max Ferguson and Connor Pavolony were tabbed as 2021 preseason All-Americans in the winter. This time last week the two were both batting under.220. Since the opening of  Sunday’s loss to Florida, they have combined for two home runs and nine RBI.  Ferguson was a triple shy of the cycle in a 4-for-4 effort versus Western Carolina on Tuesday. Pavolony hit his first home run of the season to cap his series performance against the Gators. The catcher also has two multi-hit games in conference play.

How Tennessee Can Sink The Ship

For Tennessee to win the series, the pitching staff has to keep the Commodore bats at bay. What makes Vanderbilt unique is an all-hands-on-deck approach. VU leads the SEC in batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. The ‘Dores also lead in triples and doubles. But they don’t rely on the long ball. The Black and Gold simply find ways to score.

Vandy has multiple guys leading in several different league categories. Junior Dominic Keegan tops the SEC in OPS (.739), while Carter Young is tied for the conference lead in doubles (12). Sophomore Isiah Thomas is first in triples (5). However, the Commodores’ x-factor is freshman Enrique Bradfield, Jr. The outfielder has the most stolen bases in the league grabbing 21 on 22 attempts.

If the starters keep pace, the key for the Vols will be getting outs from the bullpen. Last weekend, Sean Hunley gave up an uncharacteristic go-ahead, three-run homer against the Gators. The senior leads the conference in appearances (17) and has four saves on the season, coming into the weekend. Hunley’s ERA has jumped from 2.53 to 3.60 in his last three innings of service. A more familiar Hunley will have to be available in order for the Vols to succeed this weekend.

Perhaps a surprise can come from a reserve like Elijah Pleasants. The junior hasn’t pitched since April 6 versus Eastern Kentucky. After giving up seven earned runs in the same amount of innings to begin the season, the right-hander has allowed just one in his last 10.2 IP.

Until someone emerges, Tennessee will have to rely on sophomore Kirby Connell. The lefty has been a steady presence. Connell has a .99 ERA in 27.1 IP. His 15 K/BB rate is among the best in the country.

Prediction for Tennessee-Vandy

The team that wins Friday night takes the series. It’s inconceivable to think the ‘Dores lose two straight games started by Rocker. But I think the Vols can do enough to get to the top prospect at least leave the Sunday tilt open for the series. Tennessee wins 5-4 to begin the weekend.

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