No. 18 Tennessee was already down their starting first baseman entering their three-game series with Kentucky over the weekend.
Now, the Vols are down their starting first baseman and their backup first baseman after freshman Max Ferguson was hit by a pitch in the series finale against the Wildcats on Sunday. The Cats’ starter, Zach Thompson, was throwing in the mid-90’s and let a fastball get away from him.
“It’s a rough situation,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said following the Vols’ 5-0 win over Gardner-Webb on Tuesday evening. “He (Ferguson) has a fractured forearm.”
“He (Ferguson) can come back sooner than later because he can help us with his defense and his legs. But in order to hit, he’s going to need some time to heal, and he’s probably got two or three more weeks to do that.”
Ferguson’s injury comes at a bad time for Tennessee, as the Florida native marks the second first baseman to go down with a significant injury this season. On March 13 against Fresno State, junior Luc Lipcius fouled a ball off his foot, resulting in a fracture.
The initial timetable for Lipcius to return was around five weeks, but his foot hasn’t been healing as quickly as Tennessee anticipated.
“We thought we’d bring him to Kentucky to ease him into going to Arkansas, and that would be his first series back, but it’s just not going to happen,” Vitello said of Lipcius. “The bone needs to heal, and it could be later than sooner for him. Fergy may beat him back to the whole thing.
“There’s nothing we can really do except let Woody (Tennessee’s trainer) do his thing and hope it heals up sooner rather than later.”
Lipcius started the first 16 games of the season at first base for the Vols. The junior was tearing it up at the plate, hitting .347 in 49 plate appearances. Lipcius also slugged three home runs and drove in 14 runs.
As for Ferguson, his absence won’t be felt as much at the plate, but rather in the field. The freshman has only committed one error in 187 chances. At the plate, he’s hitting .231 and has driven in nine runs.
Now, the duo are in a battle off the field to see who can return to the lineup the quickest.
“They’re in a friendly race that doesn’t make anyone around here too happy, but in the meantime, we get to give other guys an opportunity to play and on good teams, guys step up into roles and do well,” Vitello said. “That’s what we had tonight and we’ll have in the future.”
As for now, multiple guys will receive a chance to fill the hole in the lineup.
Pete Derkay got the first crack at it on Tuesday against Gardner-Webb. Derkay is hitting .246 on the season, but he was 3-for-5 over the weekend against Kentucky with a home run and 3 RBI.
“Guys thought we were crazy in the fall when we kept moving them around to a bunch of different spots,” Vitello stated. “Alerick (Soularie) is capable of playing over there. Nico (Mascia) is, even though he’s our pinch-hitter extraordinaire. And then Trey (Lipscomb) and Pete (Derkay) serve as a nice combo of righty/lefty, and I think they’re both pretty dang good defensively.”
Soularie has served as Tennessee’s left fielder all season and leads the team in nearly every offensive category. The junior college signee is hitting .370 with 10 home runs and 30 RBI.
Lipscomb is viewed as the third baseman of the future, but he only has 12 at-bats all season and hasn’t recorded a hit. Mascia has picked up one hit in 14 at-bats this season.
“When they’re ready, they’ll be ready to rock and roll,” Vitello said of Lipcius and Ferguson. “Those are two guys that are nice athletes and good players, but those are guys that play with their souls.
“Their soul will be ready to go and itching to go. So whenever Woody says ‘you can go,’ I’ll put them in in the ninth inning to pinch hit or put them in the ninth inning for defense.”