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Aaron Combs Dominates Kentucky, Changing Tennessee Baseball’s Ceiling

Photo via Kentucky Athletics

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee star second baseman Christian Moore had three simple words to describe Vols’ reliever Aaron Combs when he’s at his best.

“Unhittable. Disgusting. Gross,” Moore said. 

Combs was all those things coming out of the bullpen in Tennessee’s 9-4 series evening win at No. 3 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

He took the ball from Drew Beam with two runners on and one-out in the fifth inning, immediately getting an inning ending double play. Kentucky didn’t put any real pressure on him the rest of the way. Combs allowed just three baserunners and struck out seven batters as he took Tennessee to the finish line in 4.2 scoreless innings.

“I had my curveball for sure,” Combs said postgame. “It’s kind of been my main pitch the last couple outings. It’s been my main pitch for a while but it was definitely working today. I had total control of it.”

Moore described Combs curveball as one he’s “never seen before” and “very hard to hit.” Vitello liked the way the high-strung right-hander paired his strong stuff with impressive composure.

“In order to have the type of control he had today, you have to be under control,” Vitello said. “He certainly was that.”

The production Combs has given Tennessee in recent weeks is what the Vols envisioned this season. The redshirt junior was a go-to guy out of the bullpen in tight spots last season including in game three of the Hattiesburg Super Regional when he came in to strike out a batter with a runner on third base.

Tennessee’s pitching turnover presented opportunity for Combs this season, but he struggled through his first seven outings, allowing eight runs and walking nine batters in 11.1 innings pitched.

There were a number of contributing factors. He worked on a windup throughout the fall that he had to scrap opening weekend when he discovered it was illegal. That early season change partly led to command issues that kept him from being at his best.

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“My command was a little iffy in the beginning,” Combs said. “I knew it was always there. My stuff has been good it was just (that) I was missing up, especially with the fastball.”

“I’ve harped on this theme of getting guys in a rhythm,” Vitello said of Combs. “January and February wasn’t built up for him the way you would normally like. He had to get his feet under him a little bit and it’s been nice to see him pitching the way that he is.”

Combs started to turn the corner two weekends ago at Auburn in an outing he admitted his hip was “killing” him. He’s followed it up with consecutive dominant performances. Combs allowed just one run, six hits and three walks while striking out 17 batters in 10.2 innings pitched in his last three outings.

“Once I got that in control I’ve just been locked in,” Combs said.

Tennessee boasts an offense good enough to win the National Championship. The pitching staff is what will decide how far this team can go. Combs’ emergence answers a lot of questions and provides plenty of reason for positivity.

Pair him with Drew Beam, Nate Snead and the bouncing back AJ Causey, Tennessee has four right-handed arms they trust to pitch four-plus innings at a time. If AJ Russell gets healthy and returns to the fold then there’s a fifth option that has a higher ceiling than any of the others. Then Tennessee has left handers Zander Sechrist, Kirby Connell, Chris Stamos and Andrew Behnke who can pitch in varying roles.

But Combs’ recent dominance is an inflection point. He’s a second high-end bullpen arm that can fill just about every role.

Combs showed just that shooting down a talented Kentucky lineup and taking Tennessee the distance as the Vols evened up the top five weekend series.

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