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Chris Stamos, AJ Causey Stack Excelling For Tennessee Baseball

Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

Friday night’s in SEC baseball are known for elite pitching matchups. Projected MLB first round draft picks with high velocity fastballs face off. They’re often the lowest scoring game of the weekend series but also the most entertaining because of the immense talent on the mound.

Tennessee baseball’s won four of its last five series openers leaning on the unconventional duo of Chris Stamos and AJ Causey.

Both are transfers who came to Tennessee to play at a higher level of college baseball and improve their draft stock. Stamos is a left-handed opener who boasts a mid-80s fastball. Causey is a low arm slot right-hander with a low-90s fastball and elite movement on his arsenal of pitches. Neither will hear their name called during the first round of the 2024 MLB Draft.

That matters little for Tennessee baseball, who keeps collecting wins while the two hold SEC offenses at bay.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “It can be a bunch of different ways.”

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Why Tennessee Turned To The Stamos-Causey Stack

As AJ Russell struck out 10 Texas Tech batters in 4.1 innings pitched during the Vols’ series opening win it looked like Tennessee might have one of the best Friday night starters in the country.

A highly touted sophomore, Russell boasted a upper-90s fastball and a nasty breaking ball. The 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher is a future first round pick for Tennessee. But Russell suffered side soreness a week later against Albany and forearm tightness after returning early in SEC play.

An already unexperienced Tennessee pitching staff had an abundance of innings to fill with Russell sidelined for much of the season.

“Who’s going to fill Russell’s shoes? Nobody,” Vitello said. “I say that with all due respect. … But I don’t know that we’ll have another guy like AJ Russell in our program for a while. So nobody is going to replace him, but you just need to get outs.”

As impressive as Russell was on opening day, it was Causey that was even more productive in 4.2 scoreless innings to close it out. That made Causey the obvious candidate to step into Russell’s role when he was first sidelined a week later.

“We really wanted to win the first game of the season,” Vitello said. “That’s the first game you’re thinking about for a month and a half while guys are on campus, so we wanted it to be Russell and Causey.”

The Jacksonville State transfer performed well in his first four starts, two in SEC play, after becoming the Vols’ Friday night starter. But when things went sideways for him in back-to-back starts against Georgia and Auburn, 15 earned runs in four innings pitched, Tennessee mixed things up.

Vitello and his staff inserted Cal transfer Chris Stamos as an opener to use before Causey and the two have blended perfectly.

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

The Results Speak For Themselves

Chris Stamos, on the surface, was an interesting choice to use as a starter. The grad transfer never started in his four years at Cal and seemed like the prototypical left-handed relief pitcher.

The 6-foot-4 left-handed pitcher had battled a minor injury early in the season but outside of a bad outing against Alabama, had been good in his opportunities against SEC and Big 12 teams.

Left-handed batters had particularly given Causey issues in his two bad starts. Starting Stamos kept opponents offense and didn’t allow them to stack lefties in their lineup against Causey.

Stamos is a true opener but has been effective in the role outside of a one-out outing at Kentucky. He’s allowed just four earned runs in 11.1 innings pitched (3.18 ERA) and has totaled at least eight outs in every outing besides Kentucky.

“It’s been nice to see him develop that way,” Vitello said. “It’s kind of interesting because he’s an older guy. I don’t even know how old the kid is. I know being from Cal he has a lot of experience at that school but it’s kind of nice to see a kid at that age kind of learn some things and develop a little bit and I think he’s been in the process of doing that.”

The brief reset and changed role worked wonders for Causey. Tennessee originally expected him to be the less used member of its Friday tandem, but he’s been the main out eater instead. In five weeks pitching behind Stamos, Causey has allowed eight earned runs in 28.1 innings pitched (2.54 ERA) and has pitched six-plus innings in three outings.

“Technically we’ve still got that one-two combo dating back to opening day because Stamos has approached it in a mature fashion,” Vitello said. “He’s done what he’s got to do to get us outs and he’s out there for as long as we’ll let him, and usually stands on top of the mound like I’m going to turn around and go back to the dugout, which I kind of like.”

Combined, Causey and Stamos are totaling just shy of eight innings pitched per outing in the last five weeks— posting a 2.72 ERA in the process. The duo is saving the rest of the Vols’ bullpen while turning in winning performances.

Tennessee is 4-1 in games since beginning the stack and are looking to make it 5-1 on Thursday night as the Vols face South Carolina in their final regular season series.

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