It’s baseball time in Tennessee.
The Vols begin the 2020 season on Friday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium as Tony Vitello enters his third year as the program’s skipper. Tennessee begins the season by welcoming Western Illinois for a three-game weekend series in Knoxville. First pitch for the first two games of the series are scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on Friday and Saturday, while Sunday’s contest is scheduled to begin at noon.
Tennessee is coming off of a 2019 campaign where it made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. The Vols enter this season projected to finish fourth in the SEC East by the league’s coaches.
Here are the five things to watch for this weekend as the Diamond Vols kick off their season.
Injuries are beginning to mount for the Vols before they even take the field.
As if junior college transfer Jason Rackers having to miss a healthy chunk of the beginning of the season wasn’t enough, Tennessee will also be without its ace to start the season. On Thursday night, Mike Wilson of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that junior pitcher Garrett Crochet will not pitch this weekend due to general soreness. In Crochet’s place, Chad Dallas will make his first career start for the Vols on opening day.
Rocky Top Insider has learned that Crochet could miss up to three weeks due to the soreness. Because of Crochet’s draft stock, the Vols are being very cautious with the flame-throwing lefty. The injury is not viewed as serious.
Not only will Dallas be making his first career start for the Vols, but he’ll be making his first career appearance as well. Dallas arrives in Knoxville from Panola College in Carthage, Texas. In his lone season with Panola, Dallas went 5-0 with a team-best 1.15 ERA. He recorded 71 strikeouts in just 39.0 innings pitched. Dallas’ wipeout breaking ball and power fastball has generated quite a bit of buzz since he stepped foot on campus.
Tennessee hasn’t announced who will be the starting pitchers this weekend outside of Dallas. The expectation before Crochet’s injury was that junior Chase Wallace would start Saturday’s game, and fellow junior Sean Hunley would start the final game of the series.
No Tennessee pitcher has generated more buzz this offseason than Wallace, the junior out of Sevier County High School in Sevierville, Tennessee. Wallace was only used as a relief pitcher his first two years on campus, but following an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League and a strong fall, he finds himself a key part of the Vols rotation entering the season.
In two years, Wallace is 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA and three saves in 25 appearances. He’s recorded 23 strikeouts in 35.0 innings of work. Wallace is expected to make his first career start on Saturday, giving Tennessee fans their first look at the new-look right-hander and his power fastball and nasty sinker.
Dallas isn’t the only exciting new face Tennessee fans can look forward to watching this weekend.
True freshmen Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck have generated a lot of buzz since signing with the Vols. Gilbert, who flipped his commitment from Oregon State, has impressed on the mound. The 5-foot-9 lefty is the ultimate competitor on the mound with his lively fastball. He’s expected to play a key role out of the bullpen for the Vols, and he could also be a fixture in center field. Gilbert’s bat has been just as impressive has his presence on the mound. As a result, he’ll receive some plate appearances as well.
Beck will also receive several at-bats throughout the season. The Hazel Green, Alabama native will likely start in right field, but he could also see playing time at first base and as the designated hitter. Beck was drafted in the 14th round by the Boston Red Sox but elected to attend college instead. The freshman adds a much-needed power bat to Tennessee’s lineup.
A couple of other new names to keep an eye out for are Jackson Leath, Liam Spence, and Matt Turino. Leath figures to be a key pitcher out of the bullpen, while Spence and Turino have been competing for the starting job at shortstop and center field, respectively.
Tennessee will have an opening day lineup, but the chances of that lineup being the same all three games throughout the weekend are slim-to-none. The Vols simply have too many bodies vying for playing time, a welcomed sight for a program that has struggled to build depth for years.
UT is replacing four key pieces from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Andre Lipcius, Ricky Martinez, Jay Charleston, and Justin Ammons are all gone to professional baseball. Sophomore Trey Lipscomb looks to replace Lipcius at third, while junior Liam Spence looks to replace Martinez at shortstop. In the outfield, junior Matt Turino appears likely to replace Charleston in center, while Ammons will be replaced by Beck in right field.
Spence and Turino are both junior college additions following tremendous careers at their previous schools. Both have a great chance to start game one, but two Vols who were on campus have been nipping at their heals. Along with Gilbert, sophomore Christian Scott will receive an opportunity to earn a spot in center over Turino, as will sophomore Austin Knight, who could start at third over Lipscomb, or in front of Spence at short.
Veterans Zach Daniels, Evan Russell, Pete Derkay, and Landon Gray will also be vying for playing time this weekend as they receive their fair share of opportunities during the first weekend of the series.
Scouting Western Illinois
Tennessee will have a great chance to pick up where it left off from last season. Western Illinois went 22-31 last season and 16-14 in the Summitt League.
Andy Pascoe is in his first season as the Leathernecks’ skipper following a stint with Butler as an assistant coach. With 18 players returning, Western Illinois was picked to finish fifth in the Summit League preseason poll. Senior outfielder Drue Galassi and senior starting pitcher Javin Drake lead the Leathernecks. Both earned All-Summit League first team honors last season.
With the Round Rock Classic looming, opening weekend will give Vitello a good opportunity to sort through his many lineup combinations.