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Tennessee Baseball Walking Into Hornet’s Nest At Arkansas

Tennessee Baseball
The 2023 Tennessee baseball team. Photo by Ric Butler/ Rocky Top Insider.

The picture was clear in the away dugout at Lindsey Nelson Stadium last weekend. Behind Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was a picture of Evan Russell and a handful of other Vols wearing Florida football helmets as they celebrated Tennessee’s series sweep of the Gators in Gainesville last season.

Florida using the picture for motivation as they outscored the Vols 15-4 in the series’ first two games was a perfect reminder of what sixth-year Tennessee coach Tony Vitello has said all season. These Vols are fighting battles they didn’t start.

“I want to defend them. I feel for them,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “There’s a lot of external BS that either some individuals have to deal with more than others or as a team. Fighting this battle, fighting that battle and so on.”

The 2022 Vols started those battles with an eagerness to embarrass everyone they faced. Now the SEC is returning that favor to the 2023 Vols. Those Vols head to Fayetteville this weekend for their third straight series against a top five opponent. They’ll be facing much more than just a motivational picture in the Razorbacks’ dugout this weekend.

“Their fans (Arkansas) are great,” utility man Jared Dickey said. “Their team is really good this year.”

“Baum-Walker Stadium is pretty rowdy,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said.

Baum-Walker Stadium doesn’t need any extra motivation to be rowdy but they have it this weekend. Tennessee baseball is hated by many but none more than the people of Northwest Arkansas.

More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said To Preview Arkansas Series

The way Tennessee plays, the way they handle success and the head man in charge— Arkansas fans hate it all. They’ll be very eager to show it this weekend.

That makes for a marquee series with high intensity and stakes, something Tennessee hasn’t handled well this season. Vitello says the Vols have entered series with a “football mentality” this season. Too high strung and not handling adversity well when opponents punch them in the face.

Tennessee players say they play better when they enter games loose. Balancing playing loose while having proper energy is a test the Vols are looking to ace for the first time this season at Arkansas.

“It is kind of tough to handle,” Dickey said. “Sometimes, it is hard to come out and be loose. I think we are doing a good job of it the last few games. I think just carrying it forward and carrying it over to every day will be good for us.”

“If you want to cut to the core, are we going to continue to try and find out what our best baseball is or not? That’s the question,” Vitello said. “I think they are eager to do that. I think they are kind of fatigued in not doing that on certain occasions and want to be more consistent with it. We’ll see if they will stick to their guns on that and I’ll see if I can stick to my guns on that and focus on what the essentials are.”

Tennessee hasn’t performed great in high leverage series this season but this won’t be its first road trip to a hostile environment this season. The Vols played in the biggest home game in Grand Canyon history before heading to hostile Baton Rouge last month.

The Vols dropped two out of three at No. 1 LSU but the games were competitive and the moment wasn’t too big for Tennessee. That series should well prepare Tennessee for the hornet’s nest they’re entering this weekend.

“I think for us, LSU was really important,” second baseman Christian Moore said. “I know a lot of people are like why is that? They had a rowdy crowd throwing stuff on the field. They hit a home run and the stadium. I think going into that and having that in our past will help us this weekend with that and being more comfortable and knowing how to handle however many people they have in the stadium and whatever they are going to do to us. It will help us this weekend.”

First pitch for Tennessee’s weekend series at Baum-Walker Stadium is at 8 p.m. ET Friday night.

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