Tennessee baseball didn’t have the best weekend.
Though the Vols started the weekend off on the right foot against Missouri with an 11-5 win, Tennessee was unable to pick up a win on Saturday or Sunday, dropping the series.
The Vols fell 6-2 on Saturday, and after blowing a seven-run lead on Sunday, lost 10-8 to the Tigers. Tony Vitello’s squad entered the weekend ranked No. 23 in the country, but following the series loss, the Vols aren’t ranked this week.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s series loss to Missouri.
The pitching staff — particularly the starters — has carried Tennessee this season. At times, Zach Linginfelter (6-4, 4.65 ERA) has been a big reason why. Other times, Linginfelter has been unreliable. Sunday’s outing for the big right-hander was a microcosm of his season.
Linginfelter breezed through the first two innings, sitting down Missouri 1-2-3 in each frame. The Sevierville native picked up three strikeouts through the first two innings, forced two ground balls, and induced a pop up to left.
As for the third inning? Well, Linginfelter could only record two outs as freshman Camden Sewell was brought on to relieve him on the mound.
In the third frame, Linginfelter allowed six earned runs on three hits. He also walked three batters – two of which led off the inning before Missouri hit a two-run triple to get on the board. The Tigers then hit a sacrifice fly and a two-run single to chase Linginfelter who threw 60 pitches on the day – of which only 30 were strikes.
This all took place after Tennessee claimed a 7-0 lead through the first two innings at the plate.
“He started thinking his way through everything,” Vitello said after the game. “The tempo was brutal. … I had said in the dugout, come get me when we’re back on offense.”
Linginfelter has now allowed four or more earned runs in a start on four different occasions this season. In SEC play, he is 2-4 with a 7.60 ERA in eight starts. Opponents are hitting .273 off of Linginfelter, and in his 34.1 innings of work, he’s allowed 29 earned runs on 36 hits.
If Tennessee is going to make the NCAA Tournament and potentially make a run, the Vols need Linginfelter to be the pitcher that the Washington Nationals viewed him as when they drafted him in the 19th round last summer.
“The number one adjustment he needs to make is to pitch quicker,” Vitello said. “It’s hard to play defense behind guys when it’s five minutes in between pitches.”
Tennessee struggled offensively in game two of the series. The Vols managed to tally just six hits in the midst of a two hour and six-minute rain delay.
Missouri’s ace TJ Sikkema received the start for the Tigers and struck out five in 2.2 innings before the rain delay. Mizzou decided not to bring Sikkema back out after the rain delay, but Tennessee’s offense continued to struggle. Ian Beddle and Cameron Dulle combined to pitch the final 6.1 innings for the Tigers and allowed just two runs.
As for Tennessee, Garrett Crochet received the start and continued to pitch following the rain delay. Crochet allowed four runs before Will Neely came on in relief and allowed two runs. Missouri scored three runs in the sixth and two runs in the eighth after leading 1-0 at the time of the rain delay.
“Not very good,” Vitello said when asked how he thought the team handled the rain delay. “It went on longer than we expected, and their team handled it better than our team.
“For whatever reason, they came out with a little better edge.”
The freshman second baseman for the Vols is tearing up the baseball in SEC play, and that was on full display against Missouri this weekend.
Jake Rucker tallied at least two hits in each game against the Tigers and finished the weekend 6-for-12 at the plate. Rucker drove in four runs, smacked three doubles, and drew a walk. Though he hit eighth in the first two games, he found himself hitting in the six-hole for the Sunday finale.
“Just overall as a freshman, he’s progressing,” Vitello said following Saturday’s game. “He’s becoming more of a mature hitter where he’s doing some things in the box that you vividly remember he wasn’t doing at the beginning of the year.”
Having appeared in all 24 SEC games to this point, Rucker has a .324 average, the second-highest on the team. His on-base percentage of .412 is also the second-highest. Rucker has driven in 12 runs, scored 11 runs, and hit five doubles.
“Just my approach, I’m just going up there and not trying to do too much, not try to be the hero,” Rucker said. “Just have the same approach every at bat.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to Austin Peay (26-19). The Vols will welcome the Governors to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. ET.
UT will then travel to Gainesville for a crucial three-game series with Florida (28-21, 9-15 SEC) beginning on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. ET. The Vols and Gators will then play at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday and 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Not only is Tennessee fighting to make the NCAA Tournament, but the Vols are also pushing for better seeding in the SEC Tournament as well as a third place finish in the SEC East – which would be the best finish for the program since 2005.
At 10-14 in conference play, the Vols are currently in sole possession of fourth place and 2.5 games back of Missouri (12-11-1). Florida (9-15) is in fifth place.