Tennessee (21-17, 4-12 SEC) wasted a gem of an outing from Aaron Soto, falling 6-0 to No. 4 Vanderbilt on Friday night.
Soto Solid Again
Soto didn’t start well, giving up three runs to the first three Commodore hitters. It was a Bryan Reynolds three-run homer that gave Vandy the early lead.
After that, Soto was stellar. The crafty lefty would go on to retire the next 15 Vanderbilt hitters, and left the game after sitting down 21 of the last 23 batters he faced.
“In that first inning I just fell behind hitters,” Soto said. “I dug myself into a hole, and then I told myself from there on out to get ahead and be down in the zone. I was able to locate the fastball on both sides of the plate. My changeup was really working for me, and when I needed to I would throw the cutter for a strike or in the dirt when I was ahead in the count.”
“He’s starting his first Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, so he’s probably got some nerves going on,” head coach Dave Serrano said. “He totally turned it around, and was getting early outs. For seven innings it was a good baseball game, and then it came to a screeching halt in the eighth inning.”
Tennessee’s bullpen struggled once again. Jon Lipinski was shaky, giving up two walks and an RBI single in his third of an inning. That gave Vandy a 4-0 lead after eight. Steven Kane hit Nolan Rogers with the bases loaded in the ninth, making it 5-0 Commodores. Alex Harper-Cook had a solid outing, but allowed a SAC fly to Jeren Kendall that made it 6-0 Vanderbilt.
Jordan Sheffield Shuts Down UT’s Offense
Vanderbilt starter Jordan Sheffield got his sixth win of the season Friday night, lasting eight innings and giving up just three hits. The reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week struck out four batters on 107 pitches.
Tennessee put two runners on base one time against Sheffield when Chris Hall singled and Vincent Jackson walked in the seventh.
“He’s real good,” Serrano said. “He was up to 98 tonight, and threw that great changeup. As the innings kept going, I never thought that we were out of that game. There were a couple times where we were a hit away from being back in the game, and Jordan (Sheffield) didn’t allow us to get going.”
“Sheffield has good stuff,” Chris Hall said after the game. “He was pitching to his strengths and getting ahead of the count. He really didn’t let us into any hitter’s counts where we know a fastball is coming.”
Serrano: Offense Was Unlucky
Tennessee was shut out for the second time in its last three SEC games, but had chances against a good pitcher in Sheffield. In the first inning Nick Senzel grounded out on a hard-hit ball to Will Toffey at first, and in the second Brodie Leftridge was robbed of a triple thanks to a diving stop from Jeren Kendall.
Serrano said he wasn’t disappointed in his team’s performance at the plate.
“I thought we swung the bat pretty well,” Serrano said. “We hit the ball at some guys. We put Brodie (Leftridge) in the lineup and I thought his first two at-bats were as good as I’ve seen Brodie in this program off such a quality pitcher. I wasn’t disappointed with how we were swinging the bat versus how good Sheffield was early on.”
Chris Hall accounted for two of Tennessee’s four hits. The senior right fielder said his team hit a lot of fastballs, but his team couldn’t get anything going.
“It’s not what you want to see, especially against a guy like Sheffield,” Hall added. “Those balls start falling and other guys get some confidence, but that didn’t happen. They played good defense. Credit to them, they didn’t give us much.”
The Bottom Line
Tennessee can take away some good things, despite getting shut out by its in-state rival. The bottom of the order made plenty of contact, but the ball just didn’t fall in the right places. Brodie Leftridge and Tyler Schultz hit the ball hard on multiple occasions. If those two guys continue to swing the bat well, then Tennessee should find a way to bounce back in this series.
The bullpen imploded again, this time giving up three walks in the ninth inning alone. It looks like there will be some new faces getting increased opportunities from this group once again. The emergence of freshman Alex Harper-Cook as a reliable lefty out of the pen will do wonders for Dave Serrano down the road.
“The two guys that I went to are older guys,” Serrano said. “I didn’t want to have to use Alex Harper-Cook out of the bullpen. Some of these younger guys are continuing to give us some quality innings. I’ve got to quit being so stubborn and start going to those younger guys, and letting those older guys watch those younger guys.”
If Serrano can trust his younger guys, such as Harper-Cook and Will Neely, the bullpen may show some signs of life. Expect to see those two guys getting more time ahead of Lipinski and Kane moving forward.
Tennessee will face Golden Spikes Award nominee Kyle Wright (4-2, 1.70) on Saturday. Things aren’t going to get any easier this weekend, but if Tennessee can continue to make contact and see the ball well like they did on Friday night, games two and three should be much closer than game one.