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Tennessee Baseball Notebook: Analyzing The Vols Entering The Postseason

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball concluded the regular season by completing a weekend sweep of South Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The Vols earned the one-seed int he SEC Tournament and a share of the SEC Championship by posting a 46-10 (22-8 SEC) record. Tennessee finished the season strong, sweeping its final three home series and posting a 12-3 record the back half of SEC play.

Where do things stand for Tennessee baseball entering the SEC Tournament and what questions do we have entering postseason play? Taking a look in the latest Tennessee baseball notebook.

Signs Of Life At Designated Hitter

We’ve written and talked at length about Tennessee’s designated hitter issues in the back half of SEC play and its importance in the Vols’ reaching their offensive potential.

Tony Vitello continued to rotate players at the spot this weekend. Colby Backus, Reese Chapman and Dalton Bargo all started games and Bargo was the only one that didn’t get pinch hit for later in the game.

It wasn’t an all of a sudden great weekend for Tennessee at the designated hitter spot but there were signs of improvement. Five Volunteer hitters combined to hit three-for-nine with a walk and a hit-by pitch (.455 OBP).

Bargo broke out of a zero-for-20 slump in SEC play with two hits on Saturday while both Reese Chapman and Cannon Peebles reached base and had good at-bats. It was a step in the right direction for Tennessee, but don’t expect any change in the strategy entering entering the postseason.

“They shouldn’t feel like the frequent changes come because they did something wrong so we’re trying some other guy,” Vitello said. “It’s (because) we have the flexibility to go into a game if we really wanted to, we had the flexibility if the DH spot gets four at-bats to do four different guys.”

Hunter Ensley’s Strong Stretch Continues

Tennessee centerfielder Hunter Ensley was one of the Vols’ best hitters a season ago, but has struggled to find his footing over the course of the season.

But over the last few weeks, Ensley has done just that. He turned in one of his best weekends of the season against South Carolina. He hit just two-of-six but walked six times and hit the go-ahead three-run home run in game two of the weekend series.

Over the last four series, Ensley is 11-for-31 (.297) at the plate with three home runs, 12 RBIs, eight walks and two hit-by pitches.

The redshirt junior isn’t going to be one of the top hitters on this year’s team like he was last season. But he’s back to hitting like he did last season over the past month. That’s high level production to go along with great defense in centerfield.

And that is very valuable.

Who Starts For Tennessee On Wednesday At SEC Tournament?

Tennessee opens up play at the SEC Tournament on Wednesday evening where they’ll face the winner of Tuesday night’s Florida-Vanderbilt game.

So who starts on the mound for Tennessee in its SEC Tournament opener?

Rolling with its usual series opening combo of Chris Stamos and AJ Causey is a possibility. It would be one day less rest than usual but Tennessee has done that plenty of times this season when series alternate from Friday to Thursday starts. But after the Vols pitched the duo on six days rest last week they might not want to force the duo to do that for the second straight week.

If not Stamos and Causey, then who?

Nate Snead threw just 22 pitches in Saturday’s series finale. He would likely be available to throw a full outings worth of pitches. Tennessee hasn’t used him as a starter all year but he’s worked up enough to handle a starter’s workload.

If Tennessee doesn’t want to use Snead as a starter they can use midweek starter Dylan Loy as an opener for Snead.

How Does Tennessee Use AJ Russell?

Another potential option is AJ Russell. Sidelined since the Ole Miss series, the right-handed pitcher seems likely to return to the mound this week in Hoover.

While Russell won’t be worked up enough for a true start, Russell could serve as an opener. However, Russell is similar to Snead and with Snead the most likely arm to pitch in long relief on Wednesday, it feels unlikely that Tennessee would stack to the two.

That’s a micro look at how Tennessee could use AJ Russell at the SEC Tournament but what about the macro view? What’s the most valuable way to use Russell in the NCAA Tournament?

He could serve as an opener but Tennessee already has two pitchers they like in that role. A high leverage reliever seems more likely. Someone who can come in to the game in a big spot and get three to six outs for Tennessee, whether that be in the fifth inning or the eighth inning.

As Russell gets worked up and can throw more pitches, that’s when Tennessee can get creative with how they use him and Snead. Tennessee’s pitching has been very good the last two months but depth remains a bit of a question.

Russell is capable of providing a huge boost to the pitching staff in whatever role. That almost certainly starts this week in Hoover.

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