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Tennessee Baseball Notebook: Thoughts On Vols’ Opening Weekend In Texas

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball opened its season at the Shriners Children College Classic in Texas over the weekend. The Vols posted a 2-1 record in the event, earning wins over Texas Tech and Baylor around a loss against Oklahoma.

It was a strong first weekend of the season for the Vols. But what did we learn and what questions do we have for this team moving forward?

Taking a look at the opening weekend of the season in this edition of the Tennessee baseball notebook.

More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said After Tennessee Completed A Winning Weekend In Texas

AJ Russell Shows Sky-High Potential

Sophomore pitcher AJ Russell changes Tennessee’s ceiling as much as any player on the Vols’ roster this season. That’s why Russell’s Friday night debut was so encouraging and the biggest takeaway from the weekend.

Tony Vitello gave the sophomore right-hander the ball on opening day and Russell delivered. He gave up two earned runs in 4.1 innings pitched but that wasn’t any indication of how truly dominant he was.

Russell struck out 10 batters and allowed just three hits and walked one batter. The Franklin, Tennessee native allowed just one baserunner through the first four innings and was frankly dominant. The movement on his mid to high-90s fastball predictably gave batters fits and he landed his off-speed pitches enough to keep them off balance.

Russell looked every part of a Friday night weekend starter in the season’s opening weekend. That changes Tennessee’s potential this season.

Transfer Pitchers Deliver

Tennessee brought in three division one transfer pitchers this offseason and after losing so many productive arms from last season’s team, the Vols need all three to be useful weekend arms. They lived up to that billing this weekend.

Jacksonville State transfer AJ Causey was the most impressive. He came in for Russell against Texas Tech and after a two-out double scored both of the inherited runs, Causey was fantastic. The submarine pitcher allowed just two hits and struck out seven batters in the game’s final 4.2 innings. Causey got the Vols to the finish line while throwing just 56 pitches.

Cal transfer Chris Stamos recorded three outs against Oklahoma and pitched the final two innings against Baylor. He made an athletic diving catch to spark a triple play against the Sooners before striking out four batters and allowing just one baserunner against the Bears.

Wichita State transfer Nate Snead pitched five innings out of the bullpen against Baylor and threw more pitches than any other Vol this weekend. The right-handed pitcher’s stuff was absolutely electric and while he was a bit erratic, offering up five walks, he also struck out four and allowed just two earned runs in the long relief outing.

All three of Causey, Stamos and Snead were impressive and looked like reliable contributors for this pitching staff.

No Surprise From The Offense, Lots To Like

Tennessee’s offense was supposed to be the strength of the team and they looked like it in the opening weekend. The one run performance against Oklahoma was disappointing as the Vols hit one-of-15 with runners-on base and zero-of-eight with runners in-scoring position.

But in Tennessee’s two other games, they totaled 17 runs and hit three home runs. The Vols would have had seven or eight home runs on the weekend if they were playing at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and not a large MLB park.

Clemson transfer Billy Amick and junior Christian Moore looked like All-Americans with Amick hitting four-of-13 with two home runs and a triple. Moore didn’t go deep but he did hit six-of-13 with three doubles and two RBIs.

Left fielder Dylan Dreiling and right fielder Kavares Tears are stepping into bigger roles this season and each looked great at the plate furthering the belief that they’ll be breakout stars this season.

Returning starters Hunter Ensley and Blake Burke weren’t great at the plate but the rest of the Vols’ offense lived up to the hype.

Good Defense And Base Running

Defense and base running have been weaknesses of past Tennessee teams— particularly early in the season. But the Vols were great on the defensive end and didn’t have any base running miscues the opening weekend of the season.

Tennessee totaled just one error on the weekend while Dylan Dreiling could have caught the fly ball that proved to be Oklahoma’s game winning double. But for each of those defensive mistakes, Tennessee made five impressive defensive plays.

Moore was solid in his first weekend playing shortstop and Amick made some impressive plays at third base. Hunter Ensley made a couple nice plays in center field and both Cannon Peebles and Cal Stark were really good behind the plate.

Strong defense and a lack of base running mistakes were encouraging in Tennessee’s first three games.

Still Questions About Who The Third Starter Is

Who would be Tennessee’s third starter this season was one of the biggest storylines entering the season. LHP Zander Sechrist earned the start against Baylor and he wasn’t terrible but also struggled, surrendering four hits and three earned runs in two innings.

Sechrist could easily get another opportunity but he also didn’t lock down the starting job— granted it would have been very difficult for him to do that.

Causey was my preseason pick and Vitello said that the transfer “deserves to start on the weekend.” He’ll likely get a chance at some point but who else gets an opportunity will be interesting to see.

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