Trying to fight their way back into the SEC tournament picture, the Tigers will have a tall task in front of them when they welcome the No. 6 Volunteers (34-11, 14-7) who have been a force to be reckoned with in the SEC this year.
Tennesse is not a team that’s going to hit for average, but they hit the ball out of the ballpark quite a bit. However, there are a couple of exceptions to that norm in the Volunteer lineup, and it starts with SS Liam Spence atop of the lineup.
The senior made the Golden Spikes Mid-season watchlist, and it’s no secret why. Currently, he leads the SEC with a .384 AVG and .528 OBP and is the ideal leadoff man. He sets the table for the Volunteers and is also in the top 10 of the SEC leaders in runs scored. It’s almost a certainty that Spence will spend a lot of time on the bases for the Volunteers and give Tiger pitching lots of problems.
After Spence gets on, the man that typically is driving him in is 3B Jake Rucker. The preseason All-American is the RBI leader for the Volunteers and is the only other player hitting over .300. His slash line reads .333/.412/.558 and he has 7 HR on the season. Perhaps the only problem with Rucker’s game is his liability to strikeout. On the year, he has punched out 51 times which is the fourth most in the SEC.
Apart from Rucker and Spence, most of this Volunteer team will just be trying to hit the ball a very long way. Guys like Evan Russell and Jordan Beck don’t hit for a great average but have 12 HR and 9 HR respectively. To shut these guys and this lineup as a whole down the game plan will be simple for the Tigers, keep the ball inside Taylor Stadium. If they can execute that, they’ll give themselves a great chance to steal a game from one of the best teams in the SEC.
Here’s what the rest of the Volunteer lineup looks like this year:
When you’ve got the offense that has scored the third-most runs in the SEC, finding pitchers that can just get outs is the main priority, and the Volunteers have just that. You won’t find any Jack Leiters or Gunnar Hoglunds on the Tennessee weekend rotation, but you’ll find three very serviceable SEC arms.
On Friday, the Volunteers will turn to Junior RHP Chad Dallas. The Volunteer Ace has a 3.71 ERA and doesn’t have elite strikeout stuff but you can almost always count on him to go 6 innings and give up no more than 3 runs. In his 10 starts this year, only twice has he failed to go at least 5 innings while giving up 3 runs or less. On the year he has a good but not great 11.7 K/9, but his best trait as a pitcher is his ability to limit walks. In 60.2 innings this year, he averages just 1.6 BB/9. Despite his less than imposing ERA, Dallas will still pose a problem for the Tigers and it could be rough sailing on Friday night.
The Volunteer’s Saturday starter is Will Heflin, and while he sports a good 3.88 ERA, he gives the Tigers a much better chance at victory than Dallas does. In his 12 starts, just 4 times has he gone more than 5 innings, and his K/9 is a shade under 9. He can most certainly get the job done for the Volunteers, but he won’t be an overpowering arm and his .291 BAA make it unlikely he will be able to give the Tigers fits for 6 innings. If the Tigers can capitalize on this and get a crooked number on the board early, they should be able to get to the not-so-hot part of the Tennessee bullpen and maybe steal a victory.
Perhaps the most talented Volunteer arm will be taking the hill on Sunday. Freshman Blade Tidwell is a big-time 2022 draft prospect but is still adapting to the SEC. In 56 innings, he has a 4.02 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. At times this year, he’s looked dominant, like his 7-inning, 1-run performance against UGA, but as of recently, he has been less than stellar. Last weekend’s 5.1 innings and 1 ER performance from Tidwell could be a sign that he might be returning to his early-season form, but if he doesn’t have it, the Tigers should be able to capitalize on his youth.
A couple of key bullpen arms to watch out for are Redmond Walsh and Sean Hunley. They have 5 and 4 saves, respectively, and guys like Kirby Connell and Mark McLaughlin have also been having fantastic seasons this year.
Tennessee might be the best team in the SEC not named Arkansas or Vanderbilt, and in all honesty, it’s very unlikely the Tigers win a game. With that being said, the Volunteers aren’t unbeatable, and they do have weaknesses. If the Tigers do win a game, that would be huge for their SEC tournament chances, but it looks like this season might be wrapping up a little earlier than most Tiger fans are used to if they do get swept by Tennessee.
Friday | 6:30 pm | SEC Network +
Saturday | 3 pm | SEC Network
Sunday | 1 pm | SEC Network +