It was a disappointing opening weekend for Tennessee baseball as the Vols dropped two out of three games in the Desert Invitational.
Tennessee dropped low scoring losses against solid Arizona and Grand Canyon teams before earning its first win of the season against UC-San Diego Sunday afternoon.
Let’s dive in with some takeaways and thoughts on Tennessee’s opening weekend in Arizona.
More From RTI: Beam Shines, Offense Comes Alive Late In Tennessee Win Over UC-San Diego
We Probably Should Have Listened To Tony Vitello
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello told anyone that would listen that the second-ranked Vols were overrated entering the 2023 season.
The reason Tennessee was ranked so high was the returning elite pitching staff. But the Vols were replacing all eight position player starters.
I believed Vitello when he said Tennessee was overrated but I thought they would win all three games this weekend. I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised to see a loss since Arizona and Grand Canyon are both solid teams.
But I believed enough in a handful of Tennessee’s returning bats and believed the pitching staff would be dominant enough to hold things down.
It was the bats that truly cost Tennessee in its first two games and while the pitching was good, it wasn’t good enough to carry the Vols to win.
It turns out Vitello knew what he was talking about. We should have listened to him. Now let’s dive into the weekend action.
A Look At The Offense’s Struggles
Tennessee’s offense received a hit before the weekend even began when Kansas shortstop Maui Ahuna was ruled indefinitely ineligible by the NCAA. The Vols’ offense was very poor in their first two games, combining for just four runs and scoring in only three of 18 innings.
Vitello’s club found their footing in game three and put up a strong seven run performance against what is a poor UC San Diego team.
The offensive issues start at the bottom of the lineup. With Austen Jaslove filling in for Ahuna, catcher Charlie Taylor earning two starts and the outfield trying to find its footing, the back of Tennessee’s batting order struggled.
Tennessee’s starting 7-8-9 hit .200 on the weekend while the Vols got a more solid .276 from all hitters in that spot.
The Vols got the production they needed from their top bats in the series finale, and from Blake Burke all weekend, but didn’t get enough in their two losses. In those losses, Jared Dickey, Christian Moore and Zane Denton combined to hit just .250 including a putrid one-of-11 against Arizona.
Those numbers aren’t great but would stand out less if Tennessee capitalized on its opportunities. The Vols turned just 13 leadoff baserunners into runs twice. Simple mistakes plagued Tennessee there and in the field.
Basic Mistakes Plague Tennessee
Tennessee struggled to get bunts down when it tried to move runners, they made base running mistakes, they committed errors and they didn’t make defensive plays they expect to make.
Those mistakes plagued Tennessee each of its losses. The Vols didn’t make plays in the outfield that allowed Arizona to gain a cushion late in the game before getting the tying runner thrown out at third in the eighth inning against Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon only had a lead in the first place because of defensive errors which led to the Antelopes scoring the tying run in the sixth inning and go-ahead run in the seventh inning.
Some of those mistakes, especially on the base paths and its inability to get bunts down, were prevalent last season. But the 2022 Vols were talented and good enough to overcome those mistakes and win nine times out of 10. These Vols don’t have as much room for error offensively.
It’s the opening weekend and many of those issues are prevalent for teams across the country, but Tennessee needs to improve in those areas.
Pitching Lived Up To, Maybe Even Exceeded Hype
While it was a disappointing weekend for Tennessee, its pitching did nothing to deter me from thinking they’re the nation’s best. If anything I was encouraged by them.
Chase Dollander was shaky in the first 1.1 innings but then found his groove. I’m not even close to worried about his performance. Chase Burns looked dominant for most of his outing against Grand Canyon, though the two earned runs in 4.2 innings won’t reflect that.
Drew Beam, the one starting pitcher I had questions about entering the season, was fantastic against the worst lineup Tennessee saw. Beam was perfect for the first 11 batters and struck out six in six scoreless innings.
Tennessee’s bullpen was very good as well despite Camden Sewell not throwing on the weekend due to “soreness”. Seth Halvorsen looked fantastic on Friday in his return to baseball while Zach Joyce made his return in the middle of a bases loaded jam, only to calmly get out of it with back-to-back strikeouts.
The only disappointments were Charlotte transfer Andrew Lindsey, who walked three and gave up three hits in three innings and left-handed junior college transfer Jacob Bimbi who walked both batters he faced.
The final numbers for Tennessee’s pitching staff: 25 IP, 7 R, 3ER, 18 H, 7 BB and 28 K. It was a disappointing opening weekend for Tennessee baseball. But not for its pitching staff.
Heed Aaron Rodgers Wise Words
We may not have listened Tony Vitello’s words that Tennessee is overrated to start the season, but let’s heed the wise words of Aaron Rodgers during the 2014 Packers season.
“R-E-L-A-X. Relax,” Rodgers said.
I would stop short of calling the prevailing thought but there were plenty of people hitting the panic button after Tennessee dropped its first two games of the season. That would be foolish.
It’s February. Tennessee doesn’t open SEC play— when things truly get serious— for nearly another month. This Tennessee team isn’t perfect. They have a lot of pieces they’re still trying to figure out how to best used. They need to be better at the little things.
But this is still a really talented team. Tennessee is going to win a lot of games and has a great chance to make it to the College World Series.
There’s 53 games left in the regular season. Don’t panic because Tennessee played poorly twice early in the season against teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament.