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Tennessee Baseball Notebook: Where Vols Stand At The Halfway Point In SEC Play

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball is at the halfway point in SEC play after earning a series sweep of LSU over the weekend. With the three-straight wins, the Vols are now riding a six-game winning streak and boast a 30-6 (10-5 SEC) record.

So where do things stand for Tennessee halfway through SEC play? What have we learned about the Vols and what are the biggest questions they’re still facing?

Taking a look at it all in the latest edition of the RTI Tennessee baseball notebook.

The Top Of Tennessee’s Lineup Is As Good As Any

We knew Tennessee’s offense was elite entering SEC play. Nothing has happened to change that. The Vols are averaging 7.5 runs per game in conference play and the top of the lineup is leading the way.

Against LSU, Tennessee’s one through three hitters — Christian Moore, Blake Burke, Billy Amick — hit 13-of-32 (.406) with five home runs and nine RBIs.

All three of those guys have been elite in SEC play, hitting .364 or better. Amick missed six games after having an appendicitis but still has three doubles and three home runs. Burke has four home runs, eight doubles and 12 RBIs. Moore has nine home runs, five doubles and 19 RBIs.

That’s as good as a top three hitters as you’ll find in the country. But it doesn’t stop there. Extend it to the top five hitters and include Kavares Tears and Dylan Dreiling. Tears is .353 with five home runs, four home runs and 13 RBIs. Dreiling has been Mr. Clutch, totaling seven home runs, 13 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs.

Those five are extremely dangerous hitters and have been pretty darn consistent. Just an elite top half of the order.

Tony Vitello Is Going To Keep Using Depth

One of the big debates coming into SEC play was how Tennessee would use its designated hitter spot as well potentially shuffling the outfield starts. Tony Vitello has shown that he’s going to be pretty flexible and give multiple guys opportunities.

Thirteen different position players have started SEC games for Tennessee. Part of that is because of the Amick absence but it’s also just normal rotation.

Between Dalton Bargo, Robin Villeneuve and Reese Chapman, Tennessee is going to ride the hot hand. And Vitello won’t be shy to use designated hitters if those fringe starters are having bad at-bats.

Just this weekend we saw Bradke Lohry pinch hit twice. The Vols will also use Ariel Antigua as a defensive substitution.

More From RTI: Where Tennessee Baseball Lands In The Rankings This Week

Tennessee Is Going To Lean On Veteran Pitchers

Earlier in the season I said that Tennessee’s pitching staff’s success would largely dependent on the development of freshmen Matthew Dallas and Derek Schaefer as well as junior college transfer Marcus Phillips.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore as they haven’t been able to find a gear and none of the trio have pitched even two innings in SEC play.

Instead, Tennessee is relying on veteran arms. Zander Sechrist has locked up the Sunday starter spot. Kirby Connell has throw the second most innings out of the bullpen.

Aaron Combs is one of the most reliable arms and Tennessee turned to super senior transfer Chris Stamos as a Friday night opener.

So much for the freshmen. Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson are putting trust in the veterans.

Will AJ Causey Get Back Into A Groove?

Jacksonville State transfer AJ Causey is one of Tennessee’s most important pitchers and has had an up-and-down first half of SEC play.

The submarine pitcher was very solid in Friday night starts against Alabama and Ole Miss then really struggled against Georgia and Auburn. He got back into a groove in a long relief outing against LSU over the weekend which was a really good sign.

Can Causey find some consistency? Will he move back into a starting role or stay as a long relief outing as a bullpen?

At his best Causey is really god because he can have extended outings and has elite strikeout ability. Whether he can do that consistently and how Tennessee decides to use him will be fascinating to see.

Does Tennessee Move Nate Snead Into A Starting Spot?

Nate Snead still hasn’t started a game for Tennessee this season but he’s, at worst, the Vols’ second best pitcher right now. He’s thrown 20.1 innings in conference play which is only behind Drew Beam (29.2) and Causey (21).

Keeping Snead in the bullpen gives Tennessee a ton of flexibility with how they use him over the course of a weekend and it’s been a winning formula.

But he’s been so good and with Tennessee’s starting still in flux it feels hard to keep him from being a starter. Especially when the Vols get to the SEC Tournament and a Regional where they could need more than three starters in one weekend.

I don’t expect any change with Snead’s usage in the short term but it will be interesting to see if the Vols give him a starting opportunity at some point.

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