First Round Preview: #13 Chattanooga Vs. #4 Illinois
Tennessee baseball opens up SEC play at Lindsey Nelson Stadium for the first time in the Tony Vitello era as the Vols host SEC east rival South Carolina for a three-game series.
The Gamecocks have been uninspiring for much of head coach Mark Kingston’s fifth season in Columbia. Clemson swept South Carolina and both Xavier and UNC Greensboro handed the Gamecocks losses.
In fact, South Carolina had lost five-straight games entering last Sunday’s double-header with No. 1 Texas. The Gamecocks swept the double-header to win the series and enter conference play 10-6.
“We’ve looked at some of the other pitchers briefly because their game times, they played late into Sunday and we finished early Sunday,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “Saw a couple innings of that deal. I think it’s pretty easy— they beat the No. 1 team in the country and everyone knows it’s tough to win in Columbia, South Carolina, but baseball is baseball and we’ve seen Texas up close. They’re talented, well coached and experienced, so they’re capable of beating anybody in the country. We’re anybody, but I feel like the way our kids have played too, we’re capable of great things. It’s just a matter of going out and playing ball.”
The Gamecock’s pitching staff has struggled in the early season — though six-games with Clemson and Texas certainly contribute — ranking 13th in the SEC with a 4.79 team ERA.
RHP Noah Hall will get the ball for South Carolina in the series opener Friday night. The Appalachian State transfer has struggled on the young season, coming out of the bullpen in the opening weekend series before earning game two weekend starts against Clemson and South Carolina.
Hall enters his first SEC start with an 0-2 record and 9.42 ERA having allowed nine walks and three home runs in 14.2 innings pitched. Hall will face off against freshman phenom Chase Burns (3-0, 0.45 ERA)
RHP Will Sanders will get the ball on Saturday for the Gamecocks and has followed up a fantastic freshman season with a strong start to his sophomore campaign.
Sanders posted 3.54 ERA while starting 10 games as a freshman last season. The Atlanta native is South Carolina’s most effective arm and has a 3-0 record and 2.52 ERA on the young season.
The Gamecocks’ go-to arm will face off against Georgia Southern native Chase Dollander (2-0, 3.79 ERA).
Sunday’s series finale will be a battle of freshman arms as South Carolina’s LHP Matthew Becker will get the ball as will Tennessee’s RHP Drew Beam.
Becker opened his season with four appearances out of the bullpen before earning the start against Texas. The South Carolina native dazzled against the nation’s top ranked team, striking out 11 batters while allowing just one hit and one earned run in six innings.
The lefty enters the weekend series with a 1-0 record and 2.25 ERA.
Beam has started every weekend finale for Tennessee this season with his usage increasing as the season has. The former Blackman High School standout has a 3-0 record and 1.59 ERA)
Out of the bullpen, Aidan Hunter (4.42 ERA in 18.2 IP) and Cade Austin (5.02 ERA in 14.1 IP) lead the way for the Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks’ boast a balanced lineup that includes six players hitting over .300 and has exploded for nine or more runs six times on the young season.
South Carolina’s one-two punch from last season — Brady Allen and Wes Clarke — are gone, taking 36 home runs and 97 RBIs with them.
Freshman infielder Michael Braswell has led the way on the young season, hitting .429 with five extra-base hits and 12 RBIs on the young season.
“He’s a stud,” Vitello said. “Defensively, and offensively. I’m ignorant to the fact that this is a possibility but I believe he’s pitching for them too.”
Andrew Eyster and Kevin Madden have brought the power-hitting for South Carolina this season. Both have gone deep three times while Eyster has driven in 23 runs and Madden has driven in 12 runs.
The most impressive thing about the power hitters is their effectiveness getting on base. Eyster boasts a .458 on-base percentage and Madden is hitting .309.
Junior infielder Braylen Wimmer (.369), freshman infielder Carson Hornung (.333) and redshirt-senior Belk Brandt (.327) are also hitting over .300 on the season.
Tennessee and South Carolina open the weekend series at 6:30 p.m. ET Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Game two is at 12 p.m. ET Saturday and game three is at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. The SEC Network is broadcasting Saturday’s game while Friday and Sunday’s games will be streamed on SEC Network+.