While Tony Vitello admits that you can’t “put it in stone” now that it’s tournament time, the fifth-year head coach has Tennessee’s (53-7, 25-5 SEC) pitching plan in place for the start of this weekend’s Knoxville Regional.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Blade Tidwell will start the weekend opener against four-seed Alabama State. The decision allows Tennessee to save ace Chase Dollander for the pivotal second game of the weekend where a win would either stave off elimination or send the Vols to the Knoxville Regional championship.
“We wanted to kind of stick with, okay let’s get into a little bit of a rhythm here and Blade led us into the (SEC) tournament which our entire tram played well,” Vitello said Thursday. “He’ll lead us into this tournament and much like last week you’re only assured two games, so you might as well not look past that but you might as well prepare for those two games so while we won’t put it in stone because it is playoff time, you’ll most likely (see) Dollander will be game two and we’ve mapped out the bullpen as we see fit for those two games.
“You have to be willing to go outside your normal box of thinking or comfort zone as a pitcher and be anxious to help the team win or happy to help the team win in any shape or form. Right now, we’ll kind of see some similarities to what we did in Hoover.”
Tidwell — the Vols’ Sunday starter as a freshman last season — missed the first six weeks of the 2022 season with a shoulder injury and has been in-and-out of the weekend rotation since.
The Loretto, Tennessee native turned in his best appearance of the season against Mississippi State, striking out five Bulldogs in three perfect innings of relief. Tidwell turned around and started the Vols’ opener at the SEC Tournament, holding Vanderbilt to one run on three hits and three walks in 4.1 innings pitched.
Tidwell and Camden Sewell are Tennessee’s only two potential starting pitchers that have NCAA Tournament experience.
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Dollander has been nearly un-hittable since returning from a deep bone bruise that sidelined the SEC Pitcher of the Year for 17 days. The right-handed pitcher has allowed two earned runs in 23.1 innings pitched (0. 77 ERA) while posting an absurd .56 WHIP.
Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson have tinkered with the weekend rotation the last six weeks, but found comfort with the pitching plan that helped Tennessee get off to a fast start at the SEC Tournament.
“We’re in a similar rhythm to what we were last weekend when we had success against a bunch of really good teams,” Vitello said. “As we stand here today can say everyone’s kind of been in the situation we might use them in. Whether that be starting, relieving, long relief, coming in late, coming in to face one guy, getting down there (bullpen) and having to get hot really quickly. I feel good that we’ve kind of checked the preparation boxes.”
Where Tennessee goes from there and who they use out of the bullpen in the first two games is convoluted due to the Vols’ impressive pithing depth and its flexibility during the regular season.
After clinching the regular-season SEC Championship with seven conference games left to play, Tennessee started Ben Joyce and Camden Sewell once each while pitching freshman starters Drew Beam and Chase Burns out of the bullpen.
The Vols feel good about three starters in addition to Tidwell and Dollander — Burns, Beam and Sewell — and could use all three out of the bullpen too.
While Sewell has been the go-to long reliever and Vitello mentioned wanting to have him available for Friday night, the rest of Tennessee’s pitching plan is hard to predict. That makes the top-seeded Vols even tougher to plan for.
“I think it’s the key to this team in general,” Vitello said. “They’ve been flexible not just with their pitching roles, but when they come in a game, when they don’t, how practice goes, who gets left out of this, who gets to do that, who gets credit and at the end of the day you can’t have a tremendous amount of success in a team sport unless guys are doing that in general. I think these guys kind of do it to an extreme. I think the pitching is a good example, but really on the whole it is representative of the team.”
Tennessee opens NCAA Tournament play at 6 p.m. ET Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The SEC Network will broadcast the game.