NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Following a dominant weekend on the road at Ole Miss and the program’s first ever consensus top-ranking, the Vols hit the road again for a tough matchup. No. 1 Tennessee (24-1, 6-0 SEC) faces off against No. 9 Vanderbilt (20-4, 4-2 SEC) this weekend in Nashville.
The Vols and Commodores are no strangers to each other. Their rivalry spans back to 1897. Tennessee leads the overall series 174-161-2, but is 74-95-1 in Nashville overall.
In recent memory, Vanderbilt has had Tennessee’s number. The Vols are 10-20 in the last 10 series against the Commodores, with their last series win coming in 2016.
However, the roles are a bit reversed in 2022. Vanderbilt has been the gold standard in college baseball over the past decade, and especially in the state of Tennessee. Tennessee coach Tony Vitello has turned Tennessee’s baseball program into a true rival of that with not only winning, but recruiting and national recognition as well.
Tennessee is riding a 16-game win streak going into the series, which is tied for longest in program history. Vanderbilt is trying to rebound a series loss on the road against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt is chasing Tennessee in the rankings this season, albeit early in the SEC schedule still. A Vitello-coached Tennessee team has still not beaten Vanderbilt in a three-game series, but the Vols are more focused on the big picture.
“I think we’re in a position where we’re trying to win as many SEC games as possible,” Vitello said. “Last year on Sunday, the last time we played (Vanderbilt), we did not play very well at all.”
It was a top five matchup in 2021, and Vanderbilt took two-of-three in Knoxville. The Commodores clinched the series in game three with a 10-4 win in which they scored multiple runs in four straight innings.
“I remember it was exciting, and it got a little chippy,” Tennessee pitcher Blade Tidwell said about the series against Vanderbilt last year. “It was close, so it’ll be a good one this weekend.”
The Commodores have a different look on the mound this year. In 2021, they were carried by superstar starting pitching with Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. Friday starter Chris McElvain holds a 4-0 record with a 1.95 ERA.
Beyond that, it has been a collective effort from Vanderbilt’s pitching staff, which ranks fifth in the nation with a 2.50 ERA. Patrick Reilly has succeeded in long relief for the Commodores. He has a 1.09 ERA over 24.2 innings in six appearances.
Tennessee’s pitching staff is bolstered with the return of Tidwell. The sophomore missed the first six weeks of the season due to a shoulder injury. He returned to the mound on Tuesday, throwing an inning with one earned run and two strikeouts.
“We wanted to get to the point where we felt comfortable as a coaching staff that he was overly prepared,” Vitello said. “I thought he was outstanding.”
As a true freshman, Tidwell was 10-3 with a 3.74 ERA. This year, he will have to earn his way into pitching on weekends with how Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam have been holding it down.
“I think a little friendly competition is great for the team. You only get it when you see really good teams, and I think we’re a really good team,” Tidwell said.
The Vols are aware that being ranked No. 1 is a big deal, but it is not their final goal. There might be a target on their backs as they face Vanderbilt this weekend.
“Every team wants to be No. 1. I don’t think it was that much of a goal for us, we just wanted to win games,” freshman Christian Moore said. “It’s huge to have it, but we’re gonna keep working and not be worried about it.”
First pitch for game one at Hawkins Field in Nashville is at 7:00 p.m. EST.