The last time Tennessee faced off against Ole Miss, coach Tony Vitello was just starting to build his foundation for the Vols’ baseball program. Tennessee won two games in that series, which took place from May 16-18, 2019 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Tennessee and Ole Miss were ranked No. 23 and No. 15 at that time, respectively.
Nearly three years later, the series has a different kind of hype surrounding it.
No. 5 Tennessee (20-1, 3-0 SEC) travels to Oxford, Miss. to face off against No. 1 Ole Miss (16-4, 2-1 SEC) this weekend. The matchup features two of the nation’s top offenses.
Ole Miss has an experienced lineup. Seniors like Tim Elko and Justin Bench man the middle of the order. Elko leads the Rebels in home runs and RBIs and Bench leads them in batting average and hits.
Meanwhile, sophomores Jacob Gonzalez and TJ McCants get on base at a high clip at the top of the lineup. Gonzalez is one of the top leadoff hitters in the country, boasting a 1.217 OPS with a .523 OBP. McCants has six stolen bases in eight attempts.
“They’re the top team in the country for a reason,” Tennessee closer Redmond Walsh said. “You can’t pitch around anybody. That’s the thing, you got to go into it thinking every guy is a three hole hitter, every guy is a leadoff hitter.”
Tennessee’s offense has been clicking since opening day. The Vols lead the country in home runs (59) and OPS (1.169). They are second in runs scored (240). There has been a mix of production between new faces and upperclassmen.
The designated hitter position has been a rotation among three freshmen so far. Jared Dickey, Christian Moore and Blake Burke have all put up impressive numbers, combining for 15 home runs, 41 RBIs and a 1.528 OPS. That has made it difficult for coaches to decide which one to put in the lineup.
“I think it’s important for our guys to realize, ‘Alright, I don’t have control when coach puts me in, but when he does, that means he thinks I’m the best guy for the job, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t think I’m the best guy for the job.’ You don’t battle with the coach for playing time other than proving you’re ready to go, but the guys on the bench should be thinking they’re the best guy for the job,” Vitello said.
Those players will be faced with a different type of test this weekend. Swayze Field holds a capacity of 11,476 and is one of the most hostile environments in the country. It will be Tennessee’s first true road series of the year, as the Vols have played 18 home games and three neutrally in Houston.
“You just want to go down there and play baseball like you’ve been playing since you were younger,” Vols’ third baseman Trey Lipscomb said. “If you go down there and play to the best of your ability and just have fun with it, then things should go the way you want them to.”
Ole Miss has had a distinct home-field advantage in terms of its offense this season. The Rebels are 12-1 at Swayze Field and score 11.15 runs per game there. They are 4-3 in away contests.
The biggest challenge for Tennessee this weekend will be how the young starting pitching fares against Ole Miss’ lineup. It is the first SEC road series for Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam, each of whom will get a start over the weekend.
“That atmosphere is one of the best in baseball, if not the best,” Walsh said. “You kinda soak it in for a little bit, but you realize it’s just baseball. The plate’s the same distance, the bases are the same distance and you have the same defense behind you, so you gotta treat it like it’s a scrimmage or just another game.”
If Tennessee’s pitchers find a way to limit the Rebels’ offense, there is a high chance of success. They have relied on outscoring their opponent this year. In Ole Miss’ four losses, the offense has averaged only 2.5 runs.
First pitch for game one in Oxford, Mississippi is slated for 7:30 p.m. EST on Friday.