On Saturday in Fayetteville, the No. 8 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks (33-11, 14-6 SEC) defeated the No. 20 ranked Tennessee Volunteers (31-13, 9-11 SEC) in demoralizing fashion in front of a packed home crowd at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The 15-3 loss follows a closer fought 11-9 loss for the Vols on Friday, and the Razorbacks, having won the season series against another conference opponent, seemed poised to finish strong and welcome the postseason. For them, the coming of summer means a chance to avenge their loss in the finals of the College World Series.
The men in orange, however, hadn’t started the buses quite yet.
Coach Tony Vitello, currently in his second season, has reinvigorated Tennessee baseball, leading the team to win totals not seen in a decade. The Volunteers are on track for their best season in twelve years, and have already notched season series wins against Kentucky and No. 4 Georgia, a perennial powerhouse.
This is in stark contrast to the Vols’ performance in recent years, which have seen Tennessee as a middling force in the conference — always a challenger, but not a contender. However last fall, that changed. In a training camp interview, Vitello discussed his plans for success in the upcoming season.
“My goal is to make sure we prepare like maniacs and then when the opportunity comes to play a game, that our guys trust that work. But also run around and have fun and play hard. The rest will take care of itself.”
Vitello’s commitment to preparation made a noticeable impact on the Tennessee roster, with the Vols rising to their best start in years. UT fans, cast into a blue funk following a bitter overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen, latched onto the baseball team as it continued to trend upward.
Along the way, the Vols have benefitted from an experienced roster with well-developed talent. Andre Lipcius, infielder and No. 56 overall MLB draft prospect, has scored 34 runs and 42 RBIs this season. The strength of Tennessee thus far, however, has largely come from their stout defense, which has held their opponent to less than ten runs in every game this season.
That is, until this weekend.
In Friday’s game, Tennessee took a 4-1 lead in the top of the third. Early on, the visiting Volunteers looked fresh, displaying ample athleticism and poise. The defensive game looked strong as usual — although sophomore pitcher Garrett Crochet started shakily and allowed a few hits early, the Volunteer outfield was able to compensate.
A Razorback surge in the fifth and sixth innings saw Arkansas earn seven runs, three off a homer from freshman Jacob Nesbit. Tennessee was unable to come up with an answer in the final innings.
Saturday’s game was a different story. Arkansas starter Patrick Wicklander pitched just one hit until the sixth inning; Garrett Stallings, junior starter for the Vols, was pulled after just three, having given up a season-high eight runs on ten hits.
In Sunday’s game, the last in the series, junior Zach Linginfelter started off playing lights out. He struck out nine batters over four innings, but began to lose touch in the fifth. His relief, sophomore Redmond Walsh, pitched a career-high five strikeouts.
The matchup went into extra innings, with the Vols looking to come away with a hard fought victory to avenge their earlier losses; unfortunately, the Razorbacks hitting squad proved too formidable, and the Vols fell in the 10th inning, 4-3.
The Vols, who began the season with a bang, are now 9-12 in conference play. Given that SEC baseball is arguably the toughest in the nation, this figure isn’t as disastrous as it looks. However, thankfully for Tennessee fans, Coach Vitello and the Volunteers aren’t satisfied with a mediocre record — they’re going for the big prize.
And that shouldn’t be out of reach.
The Vols have upcoming conference series against Missouri, Florida, and Ole Miss that will probably improve their win totals. The No. 24 ranked Tigers (30-15-1, 10-10-1 SEC) may be ranked higher than the Vols following a good road performance against South Carolina, but have been known to play down to the level of their opponent and keep games close — six of their games this season have been decided in extra innings.
The Gators (28-18, 9-12 SEC), the defending conference champions, are suffering an uncharacteristically bad season. Florida was swept earlier this season by Vanderbilt, currently the favorite for the conference championship, and Ole Miss. The Vols hope to be able to take advantage of the inconsistency at the mound coming from preseason All-American starting pitcher Tyler Dyson.
The No. 13 Rebels (30-15, 13-8), at the beginning of the season, were predicted to finish second in the West Division by the SEC Media poll. While this finish is still possible, Ole Miss lost eight players to the MLB draft last year, and, as the season goes on, the lack of experience is beginning to show.
None of the conference matchups ahead for the Vols will be cakewalks, but the team remains focused on giving their all for Tennessee each and every day, and getting their squad back into the national rankings and into the conference championship conversation.
For a team that has done so much, and worked so hard, fans come to expect great things. And regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, or how the Vols perform at the SEC Tournament in Hoover next month, perhaps Coach Vitello’s greatest accomplishment this year has been the renewed expectation of excellence for UT baseball.
Tennessee will host the No. 24 ranked Missouri Tigers this weekend in Knoxville for a three game series. Friday’s game begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, and will be broadcast on SEC Network+.
Edited by Jake Nichols.
Featured image courtesy of shake Nichols.