The Tennessee baseball program is coming off its most impressive weekend of the Tony Vitello era.
Tennessee (7-0) traveled to Round Rock, Texas to participate in the inaugural Round Rock Classic along with then-ranked No. 6 Texas Tech (6-1), Houston, and then-No. 25 Stanford (1-6). The Vols entered the tournament coming off a clean sweep of Western Illinois in which they outscored the Roughnecks 45-4 and an 8-2 midweek win over Charlotte.
Even without three of its best pitchers — Garrett Crochet, Camden Sewell and Jason Rackers — due to various injuries, Tennessee managed to defeat Texas Tech 6-2 on Friday night, beat Houston 8-4 on Saturday afternoon, and finish off the weekend with a 7-2 win over Stanford on Sunday. The Vols were the only team in the field to go 3-0. They outscored their opponents 21-8 on the weekend, pushing their advantage over opponents to 74-14 on the season.
Tennessee led all teams with five players named to the Round Rock Classic All-Tournament Team. Junior outfielder Zach Daniels was named Tournament MVP while infielder Jake Rucker, catcher Connor Pavolony, outfielder Jordan Beck, and pitcher Jackson Leath all joined Daniels on the All-Tournament team.
The Red Raiders (6-1) were viewed as the No. 1 overall team in the country by two different collegiate baseball polls. Tennessee scored three runs in the first inning to jump out to an early lead and didn’t look back as it led from start-to-finish. Daniels, Rucker, and Beck all hit homers while Chad Dallas picked up his second consecutive win in his second career start on the mound.
Tennessee’s win over No. 1 Texas Tech was the Vols’ second win over a top-ranked team under Vitello. The Vols also defeated No. 1 Florida, 6-4, on April 8, 2018.
On Saturday against Houston, sophomore catcher Connor Pavolony hit a clutch pinch-hit three-run double to give Tennessee a 6-4 lead in the seventh inning. Leath was key out of the bullpen for the Vols, picking up his first career win.
Drew Gilbert led the Vols to a win over Stanford on Sunday to complete the weekend sweep. The freshman southpaw entered in relief for starter Elijah Pleasants, who ran into trouble in the second inning. Gilbert proceeded to pitch a near flawless 4.1 innings to get the Vols out of the jam and pick up his first career win.
Here are our biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s big weekend to remain undefeated on the season.
Bullpen arms lead the way
Sean Hunley, Leath, and Gilbert were the real MVPs of Tennessee’s big weekend in Texas.
Dallas turned in a terrific performance against the top-ranked team in the country on Friday. The sophomore right-hander made his second consecutive start and improved to 2-0 on the year after earning the victory against the Red Raiders. Dallas set a career-high with eight strikeouts and gave up just two runs on five hits in five innings.
As good as Dallas was, Hunley was just as good in relief. Hunley pitched four scoreless innings in Tennessee’s upset. The junior right-hander struck out five Tech batters and earned his second save of the year.
On Saturday, it was Leath’s turn as the first man out of the bullpen. Chase Wallace received the start for the Vols and set a career-high with seven strikeouts, but he ran into trouble in the fifth inning. Leath entered in relief and proceeded to strike out eight batters in 4.2 innings of work to earn his second win of the year. The Waxahachie, Texas native struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to erase any hopes of a Houston comeback.
A freshman saved the day on Sunday. After Pleasants loaded the bases in the second inning, Gilbert entered in relief and proceeded to pick up his first career win. Gilbert gave up one run on five hits in 4.1 innings of work. He did not issue a walk and struck out three batters, tying a career-high.
Pushing all the right buttons
Vitello did just about everything right over the weekend to guide his team to an impressive showing. Not only did the Vols’ skipper make all of the right calls on the mound, but he also did so at the plate.
During the seventh inning of Saturday’s game against Houston, the Vols trailed 4-3 but had the bases loaded with two outs following a walk and a pair of singles. Vitello decided to pinch-hit Pavolony for Landon Gray, who was 0-for-2 at the plate. The move paid off, as Pavolony launched a two-out double off the left center field wall to score three runs and give Tennessee a 6-4 lead.
“I was looking at Coach V, and I really wanted that at-bat,” Pavolony said following the game. “When I was walking up to the plate, I was trying to stay as relaxed as I could. I was understanding where my breath was, and I had all the time to get ready and realize what I was feeling.
“From trends I was watching the last three or four innings, I had noticed the pitcher would always go back to his fastball in after landing his curveball. So, when he threw the curveball, I knew he would try to go fastball middle in, and I did what I was supposed to do with it.”
The next day against Stanford, with the bases loaded and the Vols ahead by one, Vitello pinch-hit Derkay for Pavolony, who was 0-for-3. Derkay watched a wild pitch go by that allowed Tennessee to take a 4-2 lead. He then hit a two-run single to extend the Vols’ lead to 6-2.
Tennessee’s bats aren’t a fluke
The Vols are on fire at the plate through seven games this season. As a team, they’re hitting .296 at the plate with 11 home runs and 65 RBI. They’ve scored 74 runs and have drawn 51 walks.
Over the weekend, five of Tennessee’s hitters hit .270 or better. Infielder Jake Rucker led the way with a .417 average and a home run. Daniels also hit a home run, his third of the weekend, as he hit .333 for the weekend. Freshman outfielder Jordan Beck hit .273 and hit his first career home run, a two-run shot to left field against Texas Tech.
“These guys just feed off each other offensively. It’s a lot of unselfish hitting,” Vitello said. “It’s really fun to watch. You know what could happen at any moment right now.
“It’s hard to make a lineup one through nine right now.”
For the week, Tennessee outscored its opponents 29-10 and tallied 17 extra-base hits, including five home runs in four victories. The Vols have scored in either the first or second inning in every game this season.
Tennessee will play two mid-week games this week. The Vols will host Northern Kentucky (0-7) on Tuesday afternoon and UNC Asheville (2-5) on Wednesday. First pitch for both games are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET and will be streamed online via WatchESPN.com and the ESPN app.
Vitello’s bunch will then welcome George Washington (4-2) to Lindsey Nelson Stadium for a three-game series beginning on Friday afternoon.