Even as top-ranked Tennessee suffered its first loss of the season in the Southeastern Conference Series Thursday-Saturday at Kentucky, fifth-year Volunteers baseball coach Tony Vitello was already watching to the future.
The SEC’s three-game sets are coming to an end after the Vols host Georgia later this week and travel to defending national champion Mississippi State next week. Then his league tournament time in Hoover, Alabama, followed by the start of NCAA Regionals.
“You have four starters and a bullpen that you already trust,” Vitello told reporters Saturday afternoon in Lexington. “I don’t want to be arrogant, but I think we are ready to play four games in one weekend and not necessarily three.”
The Vols (42-6, 20-4 SEC) won a second straight East Division title without even playing on Sunday, as Vanderbilt’s 4-0 win at Georgia handed the Bulldogs their 11th league loss with six games conferences remaining for each SEC program.
Tennessee has spent most of its season with rookie Chase Burns (7-1, 2.25 ERA) as a starter on Friday, second Chase Dollander (6-0, 2.66) in as Saturday starter and rookie Drew Beam (8-0, 2.15). ) receives the ball every Sunday. When a ball returned to the mound against Alabama on April 16 and hit Dollander in the arm, it sidelined him for 17 days.
Dollander was replaced in the rotation by Blade Tidwell (1-1, 3.18), a starter last year who was projected as the staff’s potential ace this year, but his season was delayed by pain in his back. ‘shoulder.
Burns started Thursday’s 13-inning opener and worked four innings before five Vols relievers went the rest of the way. Tidwell worked three innings and Dollander four in Friday’s game which ended Saturday due to a rain suspension, while Beam pitched four innings in Saturday’s seven-inning game before reliever Redmond Walsh only works the last three.
“I think it’s one of those things where we’re going to continue to grow,” Walsh said Saturday. “You see a lot of guys developing new roles. (Reliever) Mark McLaughlin has had a long stint. Drew Beam is still amazing, and Dollander out of the bullpen has been just crazy.
“People become better players and understand each other, and I think that’s where we’re going to improve as a pitching team.”
Vitello said Dollander is returning to rotation, so the Vols could employ the same successful line over the past two weekends that they have used for most of the season with Tidwell joining a bullpen that contains Ben Joyce (2 -1, 0.84), McLaughlin (2-1, 1.09), Zander Sechrist (4-0, 1.46), Kirby Connell (1-0, 1.52), Will Mabrey (2-0, 1.80), Walsh (3 -1, 1.84) and Camden Sewell, former Cleveland High player (4-1, 2.70).
Given this wealth and the fact that no one has pitched more than four innings at Lexington, it’s no wonder Vitello tries hard not to sound overconfident when discussing his pitching team in this run. .
“We’ll see how we want to map out what we want to do on the road,” he said. “We’re guaranteed two more weekends and then an appearance at Hoover, and you never know how many games you’re going to play there, but we have to figure out what we want to do. The end game is make sure everyone is still relatively fresh and getting everyone going.
“Weird situations will show up in the playoffs, so you want to know what you’ve got.”
Contact David Paschall at [email protected]