No. 10 Tennessee (15-1) made comfortable work in three games against Rhode Island (0-13) in its last non-conference weekend of 2022. The Vols’ offense continued to score at an impressive clip while the starting pitching continued its fine work, as well.
Tennessee stayed perfect at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in 2022 with the series sweep. The Vols are now an impressive 15-0 at home. Their only loss of the season came against No. 1 Texas in Houston. The schedule is about to pick up in intensity, though, as SEC play opens up next weekend.
Solidifying a starting nine
Throughout the early part of the season, coach Tony Vitello has cycled through many different players in the starting lineups. Vitello said earlier this year that this is the deepest team he has had in terms of position players in his five years at Tennessee.
The Vols’ best nine guys emerged as the non-conference schedule progressed. There has been a mix of returning guys and new faces that are carrying the offensive load.
Guys that played a large role in Tennessee’s 2021 College World Series run like Jordan Beck, Evan Russell and Luc Lipcius are meeting expectations thus far. New faces to the lineup like Jared Dickey, Christian Moore and Trey Lipscomb have earned their way into the lineup, as well.
“We’ve got a bunch of great players, but I think it goes with the quote ‘iron sharpens iron.’ We play against each other all Fall and we see what we can do,” Beck said.
Not only have those guys earned spots, they are succeeding at the top of the order. Dickey is batting .511 with 13 extra base hits and has locked up the leadoff spot in the order. Moore slid into the two spot and is the primary designated hitter with a .409 average and five homers. Lipscomb has been the most impressive in the cleanup spot. He has a .414 average with a team-leading 28 RBI.
“We said it going into the restart game (on Wednesday) against James Madison. (Dickey) was leading that scenario off, and he’s our leadoff guy, so we were set up pretty good there,” Vitello said about Dickey. “There may be days where we flip-flop something to try something new but we are getting close to SEC play and he’s our guy.”
Vitello also has a lot of confidence in his hitters, especially the veterans. Beck has hit third in the lineup this year. Seven of his 10 strikeouts this season came during this week, including four against James Madison on Tuesday. However, he responded with a 5-for-5 game on Sunday.
“If you leave that guy out for long enough, the numbers are gonna even out and speak for themselves,” Vitello said. “He’s in the batting cage more than anybody, in the video room and everywhere else, so we’ve got no qualms with him at all.”
Growing confidence in the pitching staff
Contrary to the lineup, Tennessee has kept the same formula all year in terms of the pitching rotation. Weekend starters Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam proved they are capable of starting important games with Blade Tidwell still out with a shoulder injury.
Burns has been a model of consistency throughout non-conference play. He has pitched five innings in all four of his starts, with a 0.45 ERA and 25 strikeouts. Meanwhile, Dollander and Beam are a combined 8-0 with a 2.69 ERA.
“They’ve been great for us,” Vitello said. “It’s OK to come to the park and not know who your DH is that day, but you don’t want to come to the park not knowing who your weekend starters are… All three of these guys have done what we’re looking for.”
The Vols are also figuring out who they are going to rely on from the bullpen in certain situations. Camden Sewell and Ben Joyce have emerged as set up guys for the later innings along with Redmond Walsh as the closer. Others like Will Mabrey and Mark McLaughlin have helped Tennessee get out of some jams.
“I think we’ve gotten to that point (of knowing who to put in),” Vitello said. “You gotta pay attention to what’s going on in scrimmages, but when the season starts, it is different. That’s where you get more valuable information than you had in January.”
This series against Rhode Island served as the final tune-up before SEC play. Over the first 16 games of the season, those pitchers proved they can answer the call.
“I’m super confident,” Beck said about Tennessee’s pitchers. “I think we have the best staff in the country and I think we’re gonna be just fine.”
Tennessee plays Eastern Kentucky at home on Tuesday before opening up SEC play against South Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Friday.