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RHP AJ Russell Nearing Return To Mound For Tennessee Baseball

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball’s pitching staff has turned the corner in the second half of SEC play. After a rocky first four weeks of conference play, the Vols are allowing just 3.67 runs per game in their last 15 SEC matchups.

Things are looking up for Vols’ pitching staff  and they’re close to getting another major boost. RHP AJ Russell is nearing a return from injury after missing most of the season with a pair of injuries.

“He threw a pen today and felt good. He has been on the mound a couple times now,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said on Tuesday night. “Today’s bullpen was good. We will see how he feels tomorrow. In an ideal world, it is time to start strategizing when would he throw in a game for us.”

Russell suffered side soreness in his second start of the season against Albany back in February. He returned three weeks later for a two inning relief outing against Alabama. A week later against Ole Miss, Russell felt tightness in his forearm and hasn’t pitched in the two months since.

With multiple bullpen sessions done, what is left for Russell to do before he can make his return to the mound for Tennessee baseball.

“Being a pitching coach at Missouri the little stamp of approval was let’s face some of our guys first,” Vitello said. “Because the adrenaline kicks up when a guy might be swinging a bat because to get him out when he’s just standing in is to locate. To get him out when he’s standing in and swinging is different. So that adrenaline kicks in and is a good thing for your body and your arm. But I’d prefer you face some of our guys and then get organized on what the next best day is.”

More From RTI: Everything Tony Vitello Said Ahead Of The South Carolina Series

Given Russell threw a bullpen on Tuesday and hasn’t faced live hitters yet, it seems unlikely that he’ll pitch this weekend in Tennessee’s regular season finale series against South Carolina. That points to the SEC Tournament as being Russell’s most likely return date.

Russell was Tennessee’s opening day starter, striking out 10 batters while allowing two earned runs in 4.2 innings pitched in the Vols’ win over Texas Tech. The 6-foot-6 sophomore boasts a high-90s fastball and a stout breaking ball.

The right-handed pitcher is the Vols’ most talented pitcher and as Vitello accurately noted “can play (this sport) for a long time.”

Tennessee has been relatively cautious with him because of that fact and they will continue to be as he gets closer to returning. But Russell returning gives the Vols’ pitching staff a massive boost before the start of the postseason.

How Vitello and the Vols decide to use Russell is a more fascinating question. Russell won’t have his pitch count worked up high enough to be a starter by the NCAA Tournament. But the Vols have used two openers this season and he could potentially fill that role.

Russell could also be a high leverage, late inning bullpen arm. The talented right-handed pitcher sliding into that role would give Tennessee more flexibility with how they use hard throwing right-hander Nate Snead.

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