What a difference a weekend makes for Tennessee baseball. Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee Tech in the midweek boasted no confidence for the Vols against another top-five program in Vanderbilt in the coming days.
That’s why you play the game. The four-game losing skid was snapped Friday night in dramatic come-from-behind fashion where four solo home runs told the tale of Tennessee’s walk off winner over the Commodores in game one. From there, the Vols outscored Tim Corbin’s club 27-6 the rest of the way to secure the three-game sweep.
So, what did we learn about Tennessee baseball and where are we on the postseason outlook? We swing away on the weekly 3-2-1, featuring three observations, two questions and one thought for the week ahead.
Tennessee cashed in with runners in scoring position
I wrote last week just how bad Tennessee was at Arkansas with runners in scoring position. A refresher, if you need it, was a 1-for-22 clip against the Hogs and an even worse 4-for-43 tally with runners on base. Fast forward to this past weekend and the Vols were 11-for-29 (.379) with runners in scoring position and 16-for-44 (.363) with runners on base. All this even after the slow start on Friday where the Vols were 0-for-6 with RISP and 0-for-11 with runners on in game one.
Timely hitting was a complete 180-degreee turn as the Vols mashed with two outs in the final two games of the series, going 12-for-25. Tennessee’s first 12 runs in Saturday’s run-rule victory came with two outs – as did Sunday’s first five runs. Now that’s winning baseball.
Playing good defense makes a world of difference
There were a couple of late errors in Sunday’s 10-5 win over the Commodores that you’d like to have back, but for the most part, the defensive effort this weekend was strong. Tennessee helped itself out by playing sound baseball behind its pitchers – and even more so by keeping speedster Enrique Bradfield Jr. off the base paths for the majority of the weekend. The Vols combined for three errors altogether in three games, but the defense more than made up for those miscues.
I can’t obviously go back and highlight every single defensive play that stood out – but here’s a couple. Shortstop Maui Ahuna finally showcased why he’s going to be a first-rounder with his glove this weekend. Two plays on Friday saved some runs – one a nice, backhanded play deep in the 5-6 hole to gun a runner out at first and the other a really nice basket catch over the shoulder in shallow left field after a long run. Griffin Merritt was inserted into the ballgame in the 10th inning on Friday and threw out a runner at second base from the corner in right field. It was the lone hit allowed by Chase Burns in relief. What a play.
There were plenty more but those three from game one stood out. It’s nice to see some web gems on Tennessee’s behalf instead of some errors that have usually come back to haunt them.
Cal Stark is your catcher moving forward
Again, it was last week I wrote right here on this column that Tennessee’s best offensive lineup has Jared Dickey behind the plate. I stand by that, but the Vols have settled in with Cal Stark as the starting catcher. The former Farragut Admiral has started at backstop each of the past six Southeastern Conference games. Why is this?
Despite hitting just .204 on the season, Stark is obviously an upgrade behind the dish when compared to Dickey. That’s not a slight to Dickey – it just is what it is. The utility player wasn’t repping the catcher position outside of some bullpens since injuring himself during Fall Ball. He was pretty much an outfielder the year before prior to injury. The fact that he’s caught this much so far this year is a testament to his hard work. But Stark is a natural catcher, works well with the pitchers and controls the run game better than Dickey, though that’s been a mess all year (pitchers are included in this, too).
Stats show that Dickey hits better when he’s not catching. Stark in the lineup allows for another right-handed option mixed into the heavy lefty lineup. And it pretty much guarantees that you have two of three solid options off the bench for pinch-hit opportunities in Kavares Tears, Dylan Drieling or Griffin Merritt. One of those three could be the designated hitter for the day. Friday’s game was why you do it this way. Both Drieling and Merritt came on later I the ballgame and played huge roles in the comeback.
Stark has given the staff competitive-enough at-bats to where they are satisfied. Look for Dickey to get run behind the plate in the midweeks to stay sharp, as Stark is always a candidate to be pinched-hit for later in ballgames. That could push Dickey behind the plate in critical moments.
Are the Vols back?
I really just wanted to make this a question so I could have a reason to insert this video clip into the column. I will forever love this soundbite from Phillip Fulmer. But the question does remain, are the Vols back to being a threat? This team showed who they are when playing complimentary baseball this weekend. Good pitching was backed up by solid defense and timely hitting. The result? You swept a top-five team and a rival in Vanderbilt. Actually, you straight up bullied them, to be honest.
But let’s not act like we haven’t watched this team play the other 37 games on the schedule this year. There’s been plenty of self-imploding with poor defense, bad outings on the mound and horrible hitting with runners in scoring position. Can this weekend be a turning point? That’s up to the Vols to decide.
Tennessee needs to reach lucky No. 14 (in my opinion) to secure a postseason berth prior to the SEC Tournament in Hoover in late May. With 14 conference wins and a top-40 RPI, that should be good enough. If Tennessee continues to take care of business the rest of the way, the RPI will continue to take care of itself. Looking ahead, the Vols need to do damage at home this weekend against Mississippi State (6-12 in SEC) and need to win the series on the road against Georgia the following weekend. That gives you ample opportunities to secure two more wins at home against Kentucky and on the road at South Carolina.
Just keep winning these series and Tennessee will be fine.
What is Chase Burns’ role moving forward?
Uh, do we really even need to answer that? What an incredible performance by the right-hander this weekend out of the bullpen. His outing Friday night might have been the most impressive thing we saw in college baseball this past weekend. Three innings, one hit, no runs, seven strikeouts among nine batters faced. Incredible. Add into the fact that he reached triple digits several times on the radar gun, he was throwing with some great emotion out there. Coming in Sunday and settling everything down with a scoreless ninth was more icing on the cake.
What a weapon to have in the backend of the bullpen – one who could be called on to piggy back a struggling starter or take the ball and run in a late tied ballgame. He can obviously close ballgames if given the opportunity as well. As long as Andrew Lindsey, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam keep doing their thing, Chase Burns will be an elite option out of the Tennessee bullpen the rest of the way and a guy who could come back in and start in postseason play if needed.
One Cainer thought on the week ahead
For the past few weeks, I’ve written in this section how the slate doesn’t get any easier. That is not the case this week as the slate does in fact get easier for Tennessee for the first time in over a month. Mississippi State (23-17) owns a 6-12 record in conference play and has managed only two-series victories in the league to date. It’s fallen to Kentucky (sweep), Vanderbilt (sweep), South Carolina (2/3) and Auburn (2/3). The Bulldogs took two of three over Alabama on the road and two of three in Starkville over Ole Miss.
Series-wins aren’t just handed out in this conference, so the Vols will need to earn it. But they’ve got to take advantage of what’s presented to them. Sweeping Vanderbilt followed by another series win at home over Mississippi State would make life so much easier the final three weeks of the season. It’s there for the taking. Tennessee needs to go out and take it this week.