Vols Start 2019 Season with Sweep of Appalachian State

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(Photo via Jake Bradshaw/Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee completed a three-game series sweep of Appalachian State on Sunday afternoon with a 3-0 victory.

Following a 6-0 win on Friday night and a 2-0 win on Saturday, Sunday’s shutout marked the first time in program history that the Vols have recorded a series sweep with three shutouts. It also marks just the third time in school history that Tennessee has shut out an opponent in three consecutive games.

The other two times were in 1916 against Kentucky Central and two games against Sewanee, and in 1965 against Kentucky, Maryville College, and Vanderbilt.

In yet another pitchers’ duel, senior right-hander Will Neely received the ball and promptly shut down the Mountaineers. The Knoxville native pitched seven scoreless innings and didn’t allow a walk. Neely added four strikeouts and allowed six hits on 77 pitches.

“Standard procedure,” Tony Vitello said of Neely’s performance. “It was really nice to have a little bit more flow and rhythm to the game.

“The bottom line is that when he’s pitching, our guys know there’s going to be strikes. They’re going to need to play defense behind him, and we’re also going to be in every game. There’s an aura in our dugout and in the air when he’s pitching.”

Neely picked up right where he left off from last season. As a junior, Neely finished the season 4-2 with a 4.09 ERA tied for the SEC lead with three complete games. Though he’s an experienced pitcher for the Vols, Vitello can see his presence is bigger this season.

“Mostly, going through my first-pitch slider,” Neely responded when asked what was working so well for him. “I’m just trying to go out there and throw strikes.”

The pitching staff was dominant all weekend, not allowing a run and tallying 32 strikeouts. Appalachian State was only able to pick up nine hits in three games, as the Vols held to the Mountaineers to a .101 team batting average.

“It’s been the biggest amount of progress that we’ve made since last season is in the pitching department,” Vitello said. “There’s some new guys that have been added that are good, but we also have a core group of guys coming back from last year that were already good and much improved.”

At the dish, Evan Russell continued his hot start to the season with a solo home run in the bottom of the second. The homer was his second of the season and extended his hitting streak to three games. Against Appalachian State this weekend, Russell was 4-of-10 with four RBIs and two home runs. The sophomore left fielder even made catch up against the left field wall worthy of making SportsCenter.

Tennessee extended its lead to 2-0 in the bottom of the third when Al Soularie walked with the bases loaded to score Justin Ammons. The Vols stranded the bases loaded to end the inning. Clutch hitting was an issue this weekend for Tennessee, as it was just 6-of-36 at the plate with runners on base. On the weekend, UT stranded 20 runners.

“I think (clutch hitting) will come-and-go, which is why defense and pitching needs to be our rock,” Vitello said. “We have to find a way to get productive innings in a row and not have two or three where we have nothing, and then all of sudden we punch through one or two.”

Landon Gray continued the scoring in the bottom of the sixth. In just his second career start on Rocky Top, the catcher hit a line-drive over the right field fence to extend the lead to 3-0.

“All the hard work paid off,” Gray said. “But it’s good for us to get back in the cages and start working and hopefully carry this into the week and into next weekend.”

Gray signed with Tennessee over the summer out of junior college. On Sunday, he led the Vols’ offensive charge at the plate going 3-for-4 with a home run and an RBI. Though he split time with freshman Connor Pavolony over the weekend, the pair feed off of each other.

“With the environment being so competitive, sometimes guys can not necessarily want the best for each other,” Gray said. “I think it’s cool we both feed off of each other. We both are trying to improve each other all the time.

“It’s something you can look back and be grateful for.”

Following the sweep of Appalachian State, Tennessee now turns its attention to Northern Kentucky. The game is scheduled for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET, but due to possible rain, it could be moved up to Monday.

“It’s still a young team that needs to play,” Vitello said. “We need that game to try some other things.

“Whenever it happens, we’re anxious to play again.”

The next two pages are our recaps of Games 1 and 2 in the series.

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Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also the host of the RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.