Eleventh-ranked Tennessee baseball dominated third-ranked Florida in a 14-2, run-rule victory in the series finale on Saturday. After back-to-back poor performances from the starting pitching and at the plate, the Vols emphatically bounced back with a series-salvaging win.
What was the difference in game three versus the first two?
The Vols played loose and had fun.
“We just played loose,” outfielder/designated hitter Griffin Merritt said Saturday. “Today, we kind of just said, ‘You know what, let’s just play light. Let’s have fun.’ It was nice to see guys smiling again. Let’s just go out and play baseball because we’re all very good baseball players, but I feel like sometimes we’ve made the scene a little bigger than it needs to be. I think today, we embraced going out and playing as kids.”
It has looked like the moment has been too big for Tennessee at times this season, whether it be the defensive mistakes at LSU and Arizona or the flat-out uncompetitiveness in two games versus Florida and three at Missouri.
However, Tennessee’s game three performance against Florida could not have been more dissimilar.
Tennessee jumped out to an early 3-0 lead after the first inning thanks to Florida starter Jac Caglianone walking six batters. But even as the day progressed, the Vols had loads of success against the Gators’ bullpen, scoring in five of the final seven innings.
Additionally, Drew Beam was fantastic on the mound, turning in the best start from a Tennessee starting pitcher this season.
After back-to-back losses in which the Vols struck out 32 times and looked lifeless, Tennessee showed they can compete, and beat, the best of the best in college baseball.
“Our guys, even their outs today were very competitive,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “And I think part of it is a group mentality of ‘I just need to do my part’ and then hand the baton off to the next guy opposed to trying to be a superhero in moments. That was one pitfall at times…. I think these guys need to realize we now have a walk-off win, we have a road win and about as big of a road win as you can have (at LSU). This group can argue — Florida — that they’re the best team in the league, and we beat them. So we’re capable of doing a lot of great things as long as we keep that mentality.”
Turning the corner is not going to happen at the snap of the fingers. It will be a process for Tennessee. The Vols’ series finale win at LSU last weekend looked as if it could serve as a turning point for the season, but alas, Florida came to Knoxville and put that thought to bed.
And this Florida win may not serve as a concrete turning point, either. It more than likely won’t be that cut and dry. With a team that is still learning to play together and a coaching staff that is still figuring out what the best lineup is on a consistent basis, it won’t happen over night. It will need to happen sooner rather than later, but the Vols still have time, and Merritt is confident the corner will be turned.
“The corner will be turned,” Merritt said. “It’s not like the guys here are different. There’s no trade deadline. It’s not like we’re going to lose half our team or something. It’s the same team, and it’s a good team. It’s a team that is finding it’s way.”
As Tennessee continues to find it’s way, the Vols ‘loose’ style of play in series finales against Florida and LSU has led to encouraging wins that give off the impression they could be that team no one wants to face in a regional or in Hoover.
“The good thing that I can say is if this team keeps trending upwards, nobody in the country is going to want to see us in their regional if we’re not hosting,” Merritt said. “Nobody is going to want to play us in Hoover. For us, it’s finding a way to play good baseball, and I think we just have to keep at the things we have to get better at and we’ll get there.”
For Tennessee to trend upward, they must consistently play like they did Saturday against Florida. If playing loose was the biggest difference in Saturday versus Thursday and Friday, that is the key for the Vols to turn the corner.
The Vols have yet to put it all together in one weekend, but they’ll have another chance to do so in Fayetteville next weekend against Arkansas.