Tennessee is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Following a 14-year drought of not being in the field of 64, the Vols are in the tournament as a two-seed in the Chapel Hill Regional with host North Carolina (42-17), three-seed Liberty (42-19) and four-seed UNC Wilmington (32-29).
Tennessee will begin its potential run through the tournament against Liberty on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Cary C. Boshamer Stadium following the game between the Tar Heels and the Seahawks. Should the Vols win, they would face the winner of Game 1 on Saturday at 4 p.m., but if they lose, they would face the loser of Game 1 at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
The Chapel Hill Regional is double-elimination and is paired with the Atlanta Regional. The winner of each regional will face each other in the Super Regionals.
Here are the keys and the two X-factors to Tennessee making it out of Chapel Hill alive.
Who’s going to step up in the rotation?
Garrett Stallings is the best pitcher in the Chapel Hill Regional, but who is going to step up on the mound in addition to Stallings?
At 8-4 on the season with a 3.24 ERA, Stallings provides all the confidence in the world to Tony Vitello and his staff. The right-hander will likely eat up anywhere from six to eight innings on the mound against Liberty on Friday.
With his four-pitch repertoire of a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a change-up, Stallings will pound the zone and position the Vols to pick up a crucial opening win. Essentially, the junior right-hander is good for one win this weekend.
But who is going to will Tennessee to a win on Saturday and Sunday? What if the Vols find their way to the losers bracket and have to win two games on Sunday to advance?
The two easy answers are Zach Linginfelter and Garrett Crochet. But Linginfelter hasn’t pitched all that well of late, and Crochet is working back from a broken jaw.
Linginfelter will likely start on Saturday, and Tennessee desperately needs five strong innings out of him. Anything more would be a huge bonus. The big right-hander has the stuff to win a game on his own, but he has struggled with consistency all season long.
But if Stallings could lead Tennessee to a win on Friday and Vitello can piece together a win with the bullpen on Saturday following Linginfelter’s strong five-or-so innings of work, the Vols likely walk out of Chapel Hill victorious.
If Linginfelter isn’t ready to go, Vitello has to be prepared to call on the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Sean Hunley, Camden Sewell, and Will Heflin would probably be the first and best options in that situation.
The bottom of the lineup needs to have a big weekend
It hasn’t necessarily been bad of late, but the bottom of Tennessee’s lineup has to have a strong weekend in order for Tennessee to have a successful run in the regional.
North Carolina first baseman Michael Busch and designated hitter Aaron Sabato are receiving all of the hype as the best duo in the regional. It’s not that the two don’t deserve it, but Tennessee’s duo of Andre Lipcius and Alerick Soularie would have something to say about that.
The difference between the two duos, though, is that North Carolina’s overall lineup is deeper. Lipcius and Soularie have anchored Tennessee’s lineup all year long. But when the bottom half of the lineup stepped up, the Vols were able to pick up series wins over Florida in the Swamp, No. 2 Georgia, Kentucky, and No. 15 Ole Miss.
In SEC play, freshman second baseman Jake Rucker hit .303, but the next highest average was first baseman Pete Derkay, who hit .258. Evan Russell hit .244, Ricky Martinez hit .230, Justin Ammons hit .217, and Jay Charleston hit .214.
Tennessee needs more out of Russell, Martinez, Ammons, and Charleston this weekend in order to advance.
Tennessee has to play loose
It seems simple, but the Vols have zero NCAA Tournament experience. They’ve quite literally never been here before.
The Vols also didn’t have any SEC Tournament experience, and as a result, they didn’t play loose. Tennessee played uncharacteristic baseball against Auburn in the first round. The Vols booted ground balls in the field, didn’t cover first base properly on a bunt, pitchers weren’t as crisp and at the plate, and hitters showed a poor approach by swinging at bad pitches.
Tennessee has gotten to this point by playing gritty baseball and getting after it every single day. In Hoover, a different team showed up for the first time all season.
Being on the road in Chapel Hill this weekend should prove to be a benefit although it may not seem like it. The Vols aren’t traveling all that far, and all of the pressure will be on North Carolina to live up to the hype of being a host team.
Tennessee can just show up and play baseball. With the way Vitello spoke following the loss to Auburn in Hoover, I’d bet they do.
There are two obvious X-factors for the Vols this weekend.
In the lineup, it’s center fielder Jay Charleston. The junior has stolen 38 bases this season in 42 attempts, but he’s hitting just .218 in 57 games. If he could get his average up to just .250, Charleston would lead the country in stolen bases.
Charleston’s speed is game-changing, and that’s been evident on multiple highlight reel catches in centerfield. Charleston’s speed can also be game-changing on offense, especially late in a close game. A single quickly turns into a triple when Charleston is on the basepaths, but he has to get on base, which has been a problem all year.
If Charleston can get hot, it completely changes the dynamic of Tennessee’s offense. Vitello would much rather have Andre Lipcius and Alerick Soularie stepping to the plate with a runner on rather than the bases empty.
On the mound, Tennessee’s X-factor is Garrett Crochet.
It’s to be determined how available Crochet will be this weekend, but if he is available, it completely changes the pitching outlook for Tennessee.
Crochet is battling back from jaw surgery after taking a line-drive off his jaw against Ole Miss in Game 2 of their series during the final weekend of the regular season. Crochet had to have his jaw realigned and missed the SEC Tournament.
He hasn’t been able to eat solid foods, so his stamina is a cause for concern. But a little of Crochet is better than no Crochet. The big left-hander could be the other pitcher that shows up along with Stallings this weekend.
The sophomore is likely to be a first-round pick in next year’s MLB Draft. He could even go No. 1 overall. Crochet’s stuff is absolutely filthy. His fastball can touch 97 MPH, but it sits anywhere from 93-96 MPH. He has a sweeping slider and a power changeup that has led to 72 strikeouts in 59.0 innings this season.
Tennessee can win this weekend without Crochet, but the Vols’ chances go up exponentially if they can receive a successful outing from the big lefty.