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Tennessee Looking To Get Pitching Sorted, Build Depth At SEC Tournament

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball heads to Hoover for the SEC Tournament this week without much to prove. The Vols split a share of the SEC Regular-Season Championship and have locked up a top eight national seed in the NCAA Tournament.

So what does Tennessee want to accomplish at the SEC Tournament, besides win it? It’s about pitching.

“To have the pitching sorted,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said on Tuesday. “You want to use a certain amount of guys, get them action. It’s been a little bit— heck even DLoy (Dylan Loy) started a game for us but some time will pass and you want to keep guys in somewhat of a rhythm but it’s also an imperfect time of year.”

Vitello didn’t specifically iron out a pitching plan for Tennessee’s tournament opening game against either Florida-Vanderbilt. But it sounds like a bullpen game could be in order for the Vols.

Tennessee could pitch Chris Stamos and AJ Causey on six days rest, they’ve done it often this season. But that would be back-to-back weeks pitching them on six days rest. Something they haven’t done and don’t have to do this week due to its already strong standing.

That presents an opportunity for a bullpen game to open the SEC Tournament. Dylan Loy, Andrew Behnke and Marcus Phillips have all earned limited opportunities in SEC play but it hasn’t been consistent. Chances are the Vols will need them in the postseason.

Loy has started numerous midweeks and performed well doing so. He’s a potential starting option for the opening game in Hoover. Star reliever Nate Snead threw just 22 pitches over the weekend and will be available to pitch on Wednesday too.

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The most important arm for Tennessee to get action in the SEC Tournament is AJ Russell. The Vols’ opening day starter has spent the last two months sidelined with forearm tightness but is set to return to the mound this week. What could Russell’s role look like as he returns.

“He’ll pitch for us at some point,” Vitello said. “I think the key for him and also our team to recognize is he’s not coming to save the day. Right now, we’ve got a really good group we trust. There’s even some guys you could say they’re probably thinking they’re underutilized. So when he gets into the mix, he is not going to be built up to start or anything crazy. We’re looking for five, maybe six outs a week that can support our staff  if he’s called on to do so. And I think he will be ready to do that. I know he is anxious to do that.”

Russell throwing on Wednesday makes the most sense for Tennessee because it gives them the ability to potentially pitch the right-hander a second time in Hoover if the Vols were to make a deep run in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee’s pitching staff has been stout down the home stretch of the season and its team-ERA of 3.68 ranks third nationally. On the edges of a weekend series, the Vols pitching becomes a little thin and a regional format could expose that.

Russell’s return or the emergence of one of the Loy, Phillips and Behnke trio could go a long way towards shoring up one of the few questions on Tennessee’s roster.

Multiple will get the chance to prove themselves this week at the SEC Tournament and likely on Wednesday evening when Tennessee faces either Florida or Vanderbilt. First pitch is at 5:30 p.m. ET at the Hoover Met.

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