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Tennessee Baseball Weekend Notebook: Vols Sweep No. 1 Ole Miss

Albert Pujols Is Reportedly Reuniting with the St. Louis Cardinals on a One-Year Deal

Tennessee baseball went to Oxford with an opportunity to prove it’s one of the best teams in the country. They did that and more, sweeping the previously top-ranked Rebels to improve to 6-0 in SEC play for the first time since 1966.

Here are four takeaways and questions on Tennessee baseball leaving the weekend in Oxford.

Vols Take Early Lead In SEC Race

Tennessee exited the first weekend of SEC play 3-0 heading into its hardest stretch of the season — back-to-back series at top-five foes Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Entering the stretch, Tennessee needed to win three-games to have itself in the thick of the SEC race in my estimation. They earned all three of those wins in Oxford and — as far as the conference race is concerned — is playing with house money in Nashville this weekend.

Two weekends into the SEC schedule and Tennessee is 6-0 with a one-game lead over Arkansas (5-1), a two-game lead over Vanderbilt (4-2) and at least a three-game lead over everyone else in the conference.

Following the Vanderbilt series, Tennessee hosts Missouri and Alabama to Lindsey Nelson Stadium the next two weekends. The Vols should rake up wins against those two teams and with the top of the conference appearing slightly down this season, Tony Vitello and his team are looking to capitalize. Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC regular season title since 1995.

You can’t win the SEC in two weekends, but the Vols have put themselves in the cat birds seat with two incredibly impressive weekends.

Weekend Staff Continues To Dominate

Tennessee’s weekend starting pitchers had started zero career SEC games 10 days ago. Chase Burns and Drew Beam were pitching against high schoolers 10 months ago.

However, Tennessee’s trio of Burns, Chase Dollander and Beam have pitched like seasoned  veterans and combined to give Tennessee one of the best pitching staffs in America.

That continued this weekend where all three of Tennessee’s starters dominated an Ole Miss’ lineup that was widely considered the nation’s best entering the weekend.

Burns and Dollander each struck out the side in the first inning on their way to double-digit strikeout performances.

Tim Elko’s seventh-inning solo home run was the only offense the Rebels’ could muster against Burns while Dollander posted his second scoreless outing of the season.

On Sunday, Beam picked up right where he left off the weekend before against South Carolina, dominating the Rebels while mixing pitches and pouding the strike zone.

Through two weeks of SEC play, Tennessee’s starting pitchers have combined for 40 innings pitched (6.2 innings per outing) while allowing just 14 hits, four runs and four walks while striking out 46 batters.

That’s good for a 0.90 ERA and an 11.5/1 strikeout to walk ratio.

I am not talented enough of a writer to explain how freakishly impressive that is. So, we’ll just leave it at that. Tennessee’s starting pitching has been freakishly impressive and is about to make Tony Vitello make some challenging decisions.

How Will Vitello Handle Blade Tidwell’s Return?

Blade Tidwell was in Oxford and on Tennessee’s active roster for the first time all season this past weekend. The tall right-handed pitcher did not make his season debut, but was in the bullpen warming up in the tense final moments of Tennessee’s series finale sweep of Ole Miss.

Tidwell was Tennessee’s Sunday starter as a freshman last season, posting a 10-3 record and 3.74 ERA on his way to earning Freshman All-American honors. Tidwell was set to be the Vols’ Friday night ace this season before shoulder stiffness that turned to shoulder soreness delayed his debut by five weeks.

So, what does Tennessee do with Tidwell now? The Loretto, Tennessee native boasts a mid-upper 90s fastball and a breaking ball that improved dramatically over the course of his freshman season.

Vitello has talked at length about progressively working his pitchers back into form, meaning Tidwell isn’t going to pitch four-plus innings in his season debut. We’ll see Tidwell start his sophomore season coming out of the bullpen, but is that where he’ll stay?

Tidwell is extremely talented but it would be hard to mess with what’s working so well this season.

Beam — who would be the most likely weekend starter to get bumped to the bullpen — isn’t worried about what role he’ll fill. That’s an incredibly mature approach from a freshman that’s impressed with his advanced mentality.

“Knowing that Blade’s coming back is actually a great thing,” Beam said. “Just another arm to go in our bullpen and make us even that much better. Whether he comes back and takes the Sunday spot or takes any kind of starting spot it doesn’t matter to me. We’re just going to keep competing and doing our thing and I’ll take any role that’s handed to me.”

It’s an extremely difficult situation for Vitello to maneuver and there’s truly not a simple, right answer, at least in my mind. Vitello and Frank Anderson have compiled an embarrassment of riches on the mound. Now they have to figure out how to manage all the talent they’ve stockpiled.

Tennessee’s Lineup Finds Success In Different Ways

Tennessee led the nation in home runs entering the weekend with many naysayers pointing out that the Vols’ play in a hitter friendly Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Those naysayers are right that LNS has amplified Tennessee’s home run numbers, but that doesn’t mean the Vols don’t have elite power hitting.

The Vols proved as much Friday night when Tennessee tallied five home runs in its series opening blowout win. Jared Dickey went deep twice while Luc Lipcius, Blake Burke and Trey Lipscomb all added a home run.

Tennessee showed that they could leave the yard away from home, but what they did the rest of the weekend may have been even more impressive.

In the final two games of the series, Tennessee tallied 14 runs and 27 hits without leaving the yard. The wind was blowing in at Swayze Field on Sunday, killing a handful of Tennessee fly balls at the warning track.

Still, the Vols found ways to muster runs thanks in large parts to seven doubles and another triple.

“Pleased to see it, more than anything,” Vitello said of the offensive diversity. “We know that it’s there. Coach Elander wants to be aggressive, everybody on offense wants to be aggressive. … I do think we have a lot of different ways to produce which is key. Today, the wind was blowing in pretty good — it died down a little bit as the game went on, but Luc hit that ball about as good as he could the other way. The ball wasn’t going to carry for you if you were looking for a home run derby. … Fortunately we did produce enough of those at-bats where we grinded things out and moved a runner.”

If you wanted to nitpick and look for weaknesses on Tennessee’s team, scoring without the long ball would have been one entering the weekend. That is no longer the case.

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