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Series Notebook: Tennessee Falls In The Bluegrass State

LEXINGTON, Ky — Tennessee dropped its first series of the 2022 season to an unexpected foe — Kentucky. The Wildcats took the first two games of the series before Tennessee won the seven inning series finale.

Here’s everything to know about the weekend series.

Tennessee’s First Series Loss Comes Against … Kentucky?

Tennessee baseball has looked nearly invincible for much of the season and with just three regular season weekends left, it looked like the Vols might win every weekend series this season.

Baseball can be a funny and cruel game.

Kentucky — who entered the weekend in last place in the SEC — took two-out-of-three over Tennessee and outplayed the Vols the majority of the weekend.

There were a multitude of weather delays, a seven inning game and missed opportunities for Tennessee. However, the Wildcats looked like the better team for most of the weekend as Kentucky’s bullpen absolutely shut down a Tennessee offense that looked lifeless for most of the weekend.

Credit to Kentucky for its play, but especially its defense. The Wildcats entered the weekend as the worst defensive team in the SEC. They were stout defensively all weekend, making just one error and a handful of impressive, run saving plays. 

“I think it is going to help us learn to bounce back a little better,” Redmond Walsh said. “I thought we should have had a little better bounce back yesterday. Once you get to the tournament, it is two in a row and you are done.”

What Went Wrong For Tennessee’s Offense?

Tennessee’s offense was averaging over nine runs a game entering this weekend’s series. The Vols scored just 11 runs in three games at Kentucky.

Sure, those run per game averages are inflated by Tennessee trouncing a number of lesser opponents. Still, the Vols scored more than 20 runs in five of their previous seven SEC series and never scored less than 16  runs.

In the first two games against Kentucky, Tennessee’s offense fell completely flat. Stranding runners cost the Vols early in Thursday night’s series opener when Tennessee left the bases loaded the first three innings.

From there, Tennessee’s offense was lifeless. The Vols totaled just four runs and 10 hits in the first two games with Jorel Ortega providing four of those hits.

Jordan Beck and Trey Lipscomb — Tennessee’s two best hitters this season — combined to his three-of-23 at the plate.

Evan Russell and Luc Lipcius aren’t the stars of this team, but the super seniors have become reliable hitters. The duo combined to hit four-of-22 on the weekend with two hits coming in the series finale.

Simply put, the bats Tennessee has relied on all season struggled.

“It is going to happen but how do the lulls happen,” Vitello said. “You want quality at-bats. It is cliche but if you have quality at-bats then over time you become the casino. The Bellagio if you’re going to stay Italian, the percentages are in your favor. But if you are going to have at-bats that are semi-worthless or don’t produce anything for your team or you give up outs on the bases, then all of a sudden you are throwing out of whack what is going on on the scoreboard.”

Base running mistakes plagued the Vols as well. Kentucky picked Seth Stephenson off second base on Thursday and Tennessee got double up twice on hit-and-runs and on a line drive in Saturday’s series finale.

Reevaluating The Weekend Rotation With Postseason Play Fast Approaching

Before this weekend, all four of Tennessee’s weekend starting caliber pitchers had been healthy at the same time just two weekends. That’s made Tony Vitello’s life easier in trying to juggle the three underclassmen with first round potential.

So, with all four healthy let’s reevaluate what Tennessee has on the mound.

First, Tennessee just has two regular season weekends left and after that they will need all four starters and won’t have to use any out of the bullpen.

The debate then becomes what order do you use your four starters and then who gets left out in the Super Regional.

Blade Tidwell struggled for the second straight weekend failing to make it to the fourth inning. In three SEC starts, Tidwell has been fantastic in one and poor in the other two, combining for four earned runs in 10.1 innings pitched.

Dollander made his first long outing since returning from injury in game two of the series and looked dominant. The sophomore allowed just two hits while striking out five in four innings.

“He’ll be back in the rotation,” Vitello said. “We got to map out what we want to do and the end goal is to make sure everybody is still relatively fresh and everyone is getting action.

“He was just himself, to be honest with you.”

That covers the two sophomores now let’s look at the two freshmen.

Chase Burns had two bad starts against Missouri and Alabama and has recovered the last three weeks with solid outings. Still, Burns isn’t the dominant Friday night ace we saw earlier in the season. The Gallatin, Tennessee native gave up two earned runs in four innings pitched against Kentucky.

Drew Beam has found himself in a similar spot — though he just had one poor start. The freshman’s fastball sat low-90s on Saturday instead of its usual 92-94 mph. The Murfreesboro, Tennessee native allowed one earned run in four innings while dealing with baserunners throughout the game. Still, Beam is a strike thrower and that proves effective more times than not.

These are two freshmen who are taxing their arms far more than they did in high school. In fact, Beam didn’t even pitch his two final high school seasons.

Whether Burns and Beam can regain their earlier season dominance is a major piece to Tennessee finishing the season where they want to.

Vols Salvage Series In Finale

Saturday’s series finale marked the first time in 20 SEC series that Tennessee wasn’t playing for a series victory or sweep in a series’ final game.

Tennessee didn’t play fantastic in the sub-50 degrees, rainy conditions in Lexington, but pitched around traffic and used enough big hits to earn a 7-3 victory.

We touched on Beam’s outing previously, but Redmond Walsh worked around traffic in his three innings pitched out of the bullpen. The left-handed pitcher allowed just one run after entering with runners on the corners and nobody out before standing runners on the corners again in the sixth inning.

At the plate, Luc Lipcius hit a chopper off of a left-handed pitcher that got over the infield’s head for a two-RBI single and Jordan Beck’s first hit of the series was a seventh inning long ball that extended Tennessee’s lead from two to five runs.

The Saturday win completely shifts the narrative around the series. While dropping two-out-of-three to Kentucky is undoubtedly an unexpected and disappointing result, it serves as a wake up call with the series finale.

“You never want to lose a series,” Luc Lipcius said. “But yes I was thinking the same exact thing. We had this aura that we were the invincible team. We were just going to come in and we were going to beat you. Now, we know we do actually have to try. I think it is really good for us going down the stretch that we can’t take anything for granted.”

If Kentucky swept the Vols, nobody in Tennessee’s program would be hitting the panic button, but there would be some legitimate cause for concern.

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