Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 14, 2023

No. 16 Vols looking to regain swagger after slower start

Murfreesboro sophomore Drew Beam is Tennessee’s top pitcher so far with a 4-1 record and a 2.52 ERA. - Photos by Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

After displaying so much bravado and swagger the last few seasons, don’t expect SEC teams to have much sympathy for Tennessee.

The Vols have struggled early in conference play against a challenging schedule, losing three of its first four SEC series. Tennessee has faced No. 1 LSU, No. 3 Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M. The lone series win came at home against A&M, which was ranked at the time but has since fallen out of the polls.

UT’s starting pitchers, who entered the season with high expectations, haven’t been as sharp as expected at times, and the offense and defense have been inconsistent.

The series loss to Florida this past weekend showcased the dichotomy. The Vols salvaged a win in the final game by beating the Gators 14-2 in a run-rule win at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. After striking out 18 times and 14 times in the first two losses, the Vols drew 18 walks in their lone win.

“Today was something that I think this team needed,” UT outfielder Griffin Merritt says after the Vols avoided the sweep against Florida. “We just played loose. There’s expectations and everything, and that’s part of it. That comes with being a good team with good fans in the limelight of baseball – in college, at least.”

Starting pitching an issue

Tennessee starters Chase Dollander and Chase Burns are a combined 2-6 in SEC play.

Burns has allowed at least five earned runs in four straight starts after not allowing more than four in a start last season as a freshman. He’s allowed 25 runs in 17? innings in SEC play compared to 20 runs in 42.2 conference innings last season.

Dollander, UT’s Friday night starter, has allowed 15 earned runs in SEC play after allowing nine in his conference starts as a sophomore. He has walked nine batters while striking out 22.

Drew Beam has experienced the most success in the SEC this season, going 4-1 while allowing 15 runs. His best performance came against Florida in the series finale, when he struck out a season-high 10 and shut out the Gators for the first six innings.

“I’m always a fan of the composure, and he throws strikes,” Vitello says. “He had a little bit of that attitude that he showed last year when we had some big series that were 1-1 going into game three. It was kind of ‘on my watch, it’s going to have to go down this way. Not any other way.’”

Merritt also had a promising outing. He was 1-for-23 in SEC play entering the Florida series. The Cincinnati transfer had a pinch-hit single in the second game and received a start in the final game. He excelled as the designated hitter in the four hole going 3 for 4 with two home runs and a career-high six RBI.

“It’s what it was looking like it’s supposed to be,” Vitello says of Merritt’s production. “What you want it to be going into the year. Certainly what he wants and there’s a lot of left-handed hitters we have in the lineup regardless of who is pitching, so it means a lot.”

An eye to the postseason

After the win against Florida, Merritt expressed his confidence in Tennessee’s ability to do some damage in tournament play. “The corner will be turned,” he says, adding the Vols could make a deep run in the SEC Tournament and beyond.

“If this team just keeps trending upwards, nobody in the country is going to want to see us in their regional if we’re not hosting,” Merritt says. “Nobody is going to want to play us in Hoover. For us, it’s finding a way to play good baseball.”

The Vols, who host No. 4 Vanderbilt April 21-23 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, have faced some of the country’s top arms and bats through the first few weeks of conference. They might not be playing at the level most expected with so much talent on the roster, but they know there is still plenty of time left to put it all together and regain their swagger.

They don’t have to look far for a recent example. While top-seeded Tennessee lost in the Super Regional at home to Notre Dame last season in the NCAA tournament, Ole Miss barely squeaked in before making a run all the way to the title at the College World Series.

“I think these guys need to realize we now have a walk-off win, we have a road win and about as big of a road win as you can have,” Vitello says, referring to the victory over No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge. “This group can argue – Florida – that they’re the best team in the league and we beat them. So we’re capable of doing a lot of great things as long as we keep that mentality.”