Tennessee baseball began the 2020 season with a 3-0 win over Western Illinois on Friday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Sophomore catcher Connor Pavolony was the main source of run production for the Vols (1-0) in the season opener. Pavolony cranked a two-run home run in the bottom of the second inning on a 3-1 pitch with Evan Russell on first, who had just reached on a bloop single to left.
“I looked fastball over the middle and did what I was supposed to,” Pavolony said after the game. “I think (Evan) Russell’s (at-bat) was the most important part of that. He grinded for that hit and tired their guy out for me.”
In addition to leading the way with his bat, Pavolony helped guide Tennessee’s pitching staff to a combined shutout behind the plate. Chad Dallas (W, 1-0) made his first career start for the Vols after signing over the offseason out of Panola College in Orange, Texas.
Dallas started in place of Garrett Crochet, who is expected to miss time due to shoulder soreness. The injury is not viewed as serious for the flame-throwing lefty. Tennessee is simply proceeding with caution.
“Chad (Dallas) is fearless,” head coach Tony Vitello said of the decision to start the junior college signee. “He throws strikes, so that’s kind of what you need on Friday. You need a guy that’s fearless and throws strikes. The team has his back, so he meets all of the criteria.”
Dallas picked up the win in his Tennessee debut. The sophomore right-hander threw 76 pitches over five scoreless innings of work, allowing just one hit. He struck out four and walked two.
“The whole team was behind me, they were supportive of me, and it was really exciting,” Dallas said. “Being out there was truly awesome, especially being on Opening Day.
“Fastball had good command at the beginning, and the breaking ball was working pretty well, (Western Illinois) started chasing it. Later on, they stopped chasing, so I had to dig in a little deeper and find the zone.”
Junior Sean Hunley relieved Dallas to begin the sixth inning. Hunley pitched 4.0 scoreless innings to record his first save of the season. He allowed just one hit and two strikeouts.
Sophomore shortstop Jake Rucker tallied the Vols’ only other run in the game on a line-drive home run over the center field fence. The solo shot extended the Vols’ lead to 3-0 over the Leathernecks. It was the first home run of Rucker’s career.
In addition to being without Crochet, Tennessee was also without Preseason All-American Alerick Soularie due to a one-game suspension for missing a team meeting. Russell started for Soularie in left field and went 1-for-4 at the plate with a run scored. Soularie will return to the starting lineup on Saturday for game two of the series.
“He’s a team leader now, so he’s held to a higher standard,” Vitello explained. “I didn’t tell him to, but he sat right next to me for part of the game. He was in every pitch, cheering on his teammates. He could have taken it a different way.
“We’re certainly a better team when he’s in the lineup, but there will be times when he’s not, and we need all of our guys to act like he did when they’re not in the lineup.”
Gavin Drake (L, 0-1) started for Western Illinois on the mound. Drake allowed two runs on two hits in 5.0 innings of work. He struck out five on 85 pitches. As a team, the Leathernecks tallied just two hits.
Tennessee goes for the series win on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET.