Series Preview: Top-Ranked Tennessee Heads To Kentucky

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Tennessees makes the short drive north on Interstate-75 to Lexington with a strong chance to clinch its second straight SEC east title and an outside chance to clinch the SEC regular season championship.

Kentucky enters the weekend series 24-20 (7-14 SEC) needing to start a major run this weekend if its going to make the NCAA Tournament.

Let’s take a look at Kentucky entering the weekend series.

How The Wildcats Got Here

Kentucky got off to a hot start to the season, winning eight of its first 10 games including a series victory over TCU.

Conference play hasn’t been kind to the Wildcats. Arkansas swept Kentucky to open the SEC season, and the Wildcats bounced back with a series victory versus Georgia — its most impressive weekend of the season.

Kentucky has lost two-out-of-three games in its last five series including a series loss to SEC east bottom feeder Missouri.

Nick Mingione’s sixth team in Lexington will need a miraculous finish to the season to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 — his inaugural season.

Projected Pitching Matchups

Kentucky’s weekend rotation has been riddled with inconsistencies and for that reason we will start with Saturday’s series finale.

RHP Sean Harney will make his third start of conference play, posting a 5-3 record and 2.82 ERA on the season. The UMass transfer has started the last two weekends after a successful stint as a Wildcats long reliever.

In starts against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Harney has combined to give up just three earned runs in 13 innings pitched.

Freshman Drew Beam (8-0, 2.14 ERA) will get the ball to close the series for the Vols.

Despite the weekend series starting a day early, Tony Vitello will keep the same flow to Tennessee’s weekend rotation. Freshman Chase Burns (7-1, 2.09 ERA) will get the start on Thursday night and sophomore Blade Tidwell (1-0, 1.93 ERA) will get the start on Friday night.

Kentucky has yet to announce its starters for Thursday and Friday as eight different Wildcats have started  SEC games and none have started more than five. Let’s took at the seven pitchers besides Harney that have earned weekend starts and could get the ball this weekend.

Miami-Ohio transfer Tyler Bosma started games the first five SEC series of the season, but hasn’t pitched since. The left-handed pitcher struggled badly in his last two starts against Texas A&M and Missouri.

Redshirt-senior Mason Hazelwood didn’t start the first two weekends of SEC play, but has started every weekend since. The LHP is 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA on the season.

RHP Zack Lee took Bosma’s starting spot the last two weekends and after posting a strong performance against Vanderbilt, Florida hit the junior around for six earned runs in 1.2 innings. On the season, Lee has a 6.00 ERA in 21 innings pitched.

RHP Darren Williams (0.93 ERA in 29 IP) has made two starts in SEC play while Magdiel Cole (7.71 ERA in 23.1 IP) and Seth Logue (8. 24 ERA in 31.2 IP) have both made one start.

Kentucky Bats To Know

Kentucky has a pair of hitters hitting over .300 on the season and a pair of hitters with double-digit home runs on the season.

Second baseman Daniel Harris IV is hitting .324 on the season with 10 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs. Third baseman Chase Estep has been the Wildcats best hitter on the season, recording a .315 batting average with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs.

Shortstop Ryan Ritter is hitting .291 on the season with nine doubles and five home runs.

Those three hitters present threats on the base paths, combining for 32 stolen bases on 35 attempts.

Right fielder Hunter Jump and First baseman Jacob Plastiak round out the strong statistical hitters in Kentucky’s lineup. Jump is hitting .290 with 22 RBIs and Plastiak is hitting .283 with a team high 12 home runs and 20 RBIs.

Clinching Numbers

A new category to the weekend preview this week!

Tennessee enters the last two weeks of the regular season with a seven game lead in the SEC east and a five game lead in the SEC.

The Vols can clinch a share of the SEC east by performing one game worse than Georgia and can clinch the SEC east outright by performing as well as the Bulldogs do against Vanderbilt.

For instance, Tennessee winning two-out-of-three would clinch a share of the SEC east if Georgia swept Vanderbilt and would clinch the SEC east outright with Georgia won two or fewer games.

The Vols are looking to win the SEC east for the first time since 2021.

Tennessee enters the weekend five games up on Arkansas. The Vols can clinch a share of the SEC regular season title by out performing the Razorbacks by a game this weekend and can clinch an outright share by out performing the Razorbacks by two games.

Arkansas travels to Auburn this weekend for a three game series.

The Vols are looking to win the SEC regular season for the first time since 1995.

Game Times/How To Watch

Thursday — 7 p.m. ET first pitch broadcasted SEC Network.

Friday — 6:30 p.m. ET first pitch streamed on SEC Network+.

Saturday — 2 p.m. ET first pitch streamed on SEC Network+.

Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.