Tony Vitello picks up 100th win on Rocky Top, Vols win SEC opener

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Tony Vitello picked up his 100th win as Tennessee’s head baseball coach on Friday night with an 11-6 win over Georgia in the SEC opener. Vitello is the quickest coach in program history to 100 wins.

“It means a lot to the coaching staff because they’ve been a big part of things,” Vitello said following the game. “Rod Delmonico is the greatest coach ever at Tennessee as far as baseball goes. We’re a long way away from doing what he’s done. We’d like to do that and even more with all due respect.”

No. 13 Tennessee (16-3, 1-0 SEC) jumped on the Bulldogs (13-4, 0-1 SEC) early and often. With their Friday night ace on the bump in junior RHP Chad Dallas (W, 3-0), the Vols scored nine runs in the first four innings of the game to jump out to an early 9-0 lead.

Starting shortstop Liam Spence set the tone from the jump, hitting a lead-off home run to begin the game. Spence was in the middle of the two-run third inning as well after singling to put runners on first and second. Two batters later, Jake Rucker hit an RBI single. Jordan Beck would later single in the inning to score Spence from third and extend the lead to 3-0 in the third.

The fourth inning proved to be the difference in the game. Tennessee scored six runs in the inning, as Rucker hit an opposite field grand slam to extend the lead to nine. Rucker’s second home run of the season followed a lead-off triple from Evan Russell and four consecutive walks that loaded the bases and scored Russell from third. Rucker finished 2-for-6 at the plate with 5 RBIs.

“I think our guys had the right attitude coming into the game today,” Vitello said. “The games not over until nine innings are done, especially in our league. But it was nice to establish control. It gave us a little bit of leeway. In a crazy way, we made it hard on Chad (Dallas). There were several times he had to go down to the bullpen and play catch.”

Dallas held the Bulldogs scoreless in the midst of Tennessee’s nine-run outburst to begin the game. He would run into trouble in the fifth and six inning, allowing six runs on nine hits and two walks, but he struck out a career-high nine batters to secure his third win of the season in 6.1 innings of work.

Georgia crawled back and cut UT’s lead to four, 10-6, in the seventh inning, but that would be as close as it would get. Senior righty Sean Hunley relieved Dallas in the seventh and pitched 2.2 scoreless innings to close out the win. Hunley did not allow a hit or a walk while striking out four.

“They wouldn’t go away,” Vitello said. “A good hitting lineup and they took good swings all game long. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of battle we get tomorrow.”

Spence got a run back in the eighth inning to push the lead back to five. After Connor Pavolony reached on an error and advanced to second on a wild pitch, Spence hit an RBI double down the left field line to extend Tennessee’s lead to 11-6.

Georgia starting pitcher Luke Wagner (L, 3-1) lasted just 1.1 innings on his way to picking up his first loss of the season. Wagner was one of six players the Bulldogs used in the absence of head coach Scott Stricklin, who is not coaching this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. Georgia’s pitching staff gave up 11 runs on 11 hits and issued 12 walks.

Tennessee will look to win its first SEC series of the season on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET. Senior LHP Will Heflin (2-1, 4.50 ERA) will be on the mound for the Vols, while LHP Ryan Webb (2-0, 0.00 ERA) is expected to start for Georgia, respectively.

“Tomorrow will be a battle of left-handed pitchers who have experience,” Vitello said. “I’m not so sure we’ll be going up against their best arm, at least statistically. He’s the guy we gotta key on right now.”