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Tennessee Baseball Notebook: Vols Entering Home Stretch Of Regular Season

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball picked up its seventh straight series win over the weekend when it took two out of three over Florida in Gainesville.

The Vols enter the final two weeks of the regular season in the thick of the SEC race and keep on stacking wins despite the fact that they’re not clicking on all cylinders.

Taking a look at some key developments for Tony Vitello’s squad in this edition of the RTI Tennessee baseball notebook.

Sixth Inning Explosion Shows Why Tennessee Is So Dangerous

Tennessee’s offense was in a bit of a rut entering Saturday night’s series finale at Florida. They combined to score six runs in its final two games against Missouri and combined to score 10 runs in the first two games of the Florida series.

The production wasn’t horrible but it was a definitive step down for what’s been one of the nation’s best offenses.

Then the Vols casually scored 11 runs in the sixth inning of game three and three runs again in the seventh inning to turn a mid game deficit into a seven inning run-rule victory.

Scoring 11 runs was impressive enough on its own but it was amplified by how Tennessee did it. The power hitting Volunteers had success by grinding out competitive at-bats. They had just two extra-base hits while 14 batters came to the plate and made Florida pitchers through 73 pitches.

Then the power flexed its muscles an inning later when both Christian Moore and Blake Burke went deep.

On a weekend where Tennessee’s offense was mostly quiet and its defense made some uncharacteristic mistakes, they still won two out of three games on the road against a talented Florida team.

The Designated Hitter Conundrum

The main reason for Tennessee’s offensive step back as of late was the struggles of the back half of the lineup. The back half of the lineup became bigger the first two games of the series when Kavares Tears was sidelined with a hip injury.

Dean Curley has been solid at the plate as of late, just without the early season power. Hunter Ensley is hoping his seven RBI game on Sunday can help turn his season at the plate around and Cal Stark while improved offensively isn’t elite.

None of those events have been massive changes from most of the season. The big change is the lack of success Tennessee’s designated hitters have had.

Dalton Bargo and Reese Chapman are both in prolonged slumps. Cannon Peebles and Robin Villeneuve don’t seem likely to turn the corner this season. Colby Backus finally got a SEC start on Saturday but Vitello pinch hit for him after just one at-bat.

Tennessee had consistently strong production from that spot for most the season and it’s plummeted in recent weeks. I’m going to take a deeper dive looking at the issue later this week but it’s the biggest question facing Vitello’s squad at this point.

More From RTI: What Tony Vitello Said After Tennessee Completed Its Series Victory  Over Florida

AJ Causey’s Dominance As Pitching Staff Keeps Flourishing

I wrote about Tennessee’s improving pitching last week after the Vols won back-to-back 3-2 games to complete the weekend sweep of Missouri.

The pitching staff aced another test this past weekend when they allowed just nine runs over the course of the weekend. Only seven of the nine runs were earned. Florida has a strong offense and Tennessee went on the road and shut them down.

Over Tennessee’s last 14 SEC games, opponents are scoring just 3.5 runs per game and have only totaled over five runs twice.

There’s a number of reasons for the success but let’s take a look at AJ Causey. Those 14 games mark back to game two of the series at Auburn. Game one of the Auburn series was AJ Causey’s second straight terrible start.

In outings against Auburn and Georgia, Causey allowed 15 earned runs in four innings pitched (33.75 ERA). In four appearances since, Causey has allowed five earned runs in 22 innings pitched (2.05 ERA). Vitello is using Causey as a long reliever but he’s averaging over five innings an outing and has totaled 27 strikeouts in those four appearances.

Take the two terrible appearances against Auburn and Georgia out of the equations and Causey’s allowed just nine earned runs in 34.1 innings pitched in SEC play. That’s good for a 2.36 ERA. And we’ve seen enough now to believe that his two bad outings were the aberration, not the reality.

The Big Picture

There’s still one game left in most weekend series, but with two weeks left Tennessee is firmly in the thick of the SEC Championship race.

Tennessee (17-7 SEC) will be a game behind the winner of Arkansas and Florida’s series rubber match, tied with the other and at least one game ahead of Texas A&M. The Vols are right in the thick of the SEC Championship race.

With 17 conference wins, Tennessee has all but locked up hosting a regional the first week of the NCAA Tournament. Barring a really bad few weeks to conclude the regular season and at the SEC Tournament, the Vols are sitting in a super strong spot to be a top eight national seed.

If they get to 20 SEC regular season wins and add another win or two in Hoover and they will have all but locked up a path to the College World Series where they don’t leave Knoxville.

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