Tennessee baseball was without its head man Friday night against Dayton — as it will be the rest of the weekend — but that was little concern as the Vols’ dominated the Flyers 12-2 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Vitello is serving a weekend suspension due to the NCAA’s inquiry into Tennessee tampering in its recruitment of Kansas shortstop transfer Maui Ahuna. Ahuna is currently ineligible. You can read more about the suspension here.
On the field, only Albert Pujols kin had any answers for Vols’ star Chase Dollander. Marcos Pujols, a distant relative of the MLB legend, hit a two-run homer off Dollander in the first inning before reaching base in all three at-bats.
Dayton recorded five hits and had seven batters reach base against the Tennessee ace. However, Dollander struck out 12 batters in 5.2 innings pitched. The surprise was that Dollander threw 95 pitches in just his second outing of the season.
Also a surprise was who followed Dollander out of the Vols’ bullpen: freshman AJ Russell.
Granted, Tennessee led by seven runs when Dollander exited, but it was still a great compliment to the Middle Tennessee native that he was the first pitcher called up in the Vols’ deep bullpen.
Russell was extremely impressive. The Franklin native struck out the first four batters he faced and totaled five in a perfect 2.1 innings pitched. Following his strong two inning outing against Alabama A&M, Vitello said Russell just made him comfortable when he was on the mound. He likely made Josh Elander feel the same way Friday.
“AJ has been really good,” Elander said. “He was kind of a late addition for us about two years ago now and he’s made a great jump. He has a lot of extension in his fastball and can really throw strikes. We’re really trying to get him out there in the weekend to see how he bounced back from throwing in the midweek. Really excited about him.”
RHP Aaron Combs recorded the final three outs, striking out the side in the ninth inning.
“Combsy has been really good as of late in general and got hit around a bit in the fall, to be honest, by our hitters but he’s been on the attack and him and Frank (Anderson) have made some good adjustments,” Elander said. “He’s going to be a force for us in the back end.”
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At the plate, Tennessee had steady production but opened the game up with a five-run third inning. The most impressive part was the amount of damage Tennessee did with two outs. Austen Jaslove flared a single to left field, scoring a pair of runs before Jared Dickey hit a monstrous two-run homer over the batter’s eye in center field.
Dickey had a massive night, earning his first RBI of the season in his second at-bat and first home run in his third at-bat. The redshirt sophomore utility man three-of-four at the plate with three RBIs.
It was also a strong night for a pair of transfers who will be in the middle of Tennessee’s lineup all season.
Alabama transfer Zane Denton went two-of-four at the plate with a sac fly and RBI triple. Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt went two-of-three with his first Tennessee home run. The outfielder reached base a third time on a hit by pitch.
“He’s just a vet,” Elander said of Merritt. “He has a ton of at-bats and brings a ton to the table. Obviously, offensively with what he can do in driving the ball to the yard but he’s just a tremendous kid and we’re lucky he’s on our team because what he brings to the locker room, just the leadership aspect and how he goes about his work and little things he picks up, it’s almost like another coach in the dugout.”
Jake Kendro also hit his first home run of the season.
First pitch for game two of the weekend series is at 2 p.m. ET Saturday.