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Tennessee Baseball’s Pitching Depth Expanding As They Find Answers On The Mound

Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball entered its weekend series with Missouri having scored three or less runs just three times at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this season. The Vols were 2-1 in those games and 1-1 in the two SEC games.

So it was a promising side that Tennessee swept the Tigers over the weekend while scoring just three runs in both its game two and game three wins. Missouri does boast the SEC’s worst offense. If this was the first strong sign from Tennessee’s pitching staff, it would be one thing. But it’s been three straight solid weekends from the Vols’ pitching staff.

The Vols have allowed 3.67 runs per game over their last three SEC series, allowing more than five runs just once over that stretch. Riding the strong three week stretch, Tennessee is quietly sitting at seventh nationally in team-ERA.

“We went out there and threw strikes and let the defense play behind us,” senior reliever Kirby Connell said of Saturday’s win over Missouri. “For us it’s just go out there and do what we do and make them get themselves out.”

Earlier in SEC play, Tennessee was struggling to find pitchers that could consistently get outs for them. That’s perhaps the biggest change for the Vols’ pitching staff. They’ve found more-and-more arms they can trust.

RHP Aaron Combs has changed Tennessee’s season by living up, maybe even exceeding, his preseason expectations in the last four SEC series. After Georgia and Auburn rocked AJ Causey in consecutive weeks, he’s bounced back to who he was early in the season. In his last three outings since his struggles, Causey has allowed just five runs in 17 innings pitched (2.65 ERA) while striking out 19 batters.

Connell has proved to be a versatile option out of the bullpen throwing long relief outings and coming in to close out games. He defines the mindset of throwing strikes and letting the defense work behind him. Zander Sechrist has proven to be a reliable opener who can go more than two innings. The left-handed pitcher has totaled four-plus innings pitched in three of his last five starts.

More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said After The Vols’ Swept Missouri

LHP Chris Stamos getting a handful of outs as Causey’s opener, LHP Andrew Behnke is a lefty option for short outings out of the bullpen while RHP Marcus Phillips and LHP Matthew Dallas are talented and have now made their SEC debuts.

“The depth is expanding,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “You got Marcus Phillips and Andrew Behnke who are fresh, and yet they’ve thrown a bunch lately, down there in the bullpen. We trusted them. If something were to go hairy with Kirby [Connell] or, that game kind of had the feel of potential extra innings, you could trust those two guys against righties or lefties, or if the game is on the line, too.”

Tennessee’s pitching isn’t going to be the strength of this team. Its offense is elite and is why the Vols’ have extremely high aspirations, but the pitching has won games for Tennessee in recent weeks. It’s making Tennessee a more complete team and a key reason why the Vols have won 10 of their last 11 conference games.

“It’s nice knowing that as the season goes on we can win in a lot of different ways,” junior Drew Beam said. “That’s very important when we get late into the postseason and stuff like that. Just knowing we can defeat teams in a plethora of different ways is key for a quality team.”

A month ago, the question around Tennessee was whether they had enough pitching to return to the College World Series. There’s no doubt that they have enough now. Tennessee has seven proven options for each weekend series and four other pitchers who are capable of at least getting a couple outs.

The question has changed to whether Tennessee’s high end pitching is good enough to win the National Championship. Beam and Nate Snead have been good but not great. Injured sophomore AJ Russell remains the X-factor because of his elite talent.

But the Vols have undoubtedly expanded their depth and raised their ceiling due to the growth of their pitching staff.

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