Photo via Tennessee Athletics
After a disappointing opening weekend of the season, Tennessee baseball responded with a 5-0 week, dominating overmatched Alabama A&M and Dayton squads.
The Vols pitching was next level and their bats did enough to make the wins drama free, even the three without head honcho Tony Vitello.
Taking a look at the week in this addition of the RTI Tennessee Baseball Notebook.
More From RTI: Tennessee Takes Game Three, Completes Weekend Sweep Of Dayton
Pitching Dominates Again
I think, nay I know, anytime I write broad posts about Tennessee baseball this season I’ll be hard pressed not to include a section about how dominant the pitching is.
After being the bright spot in the opening weekend series, it was fantastic in five games this week. The Vols allowed just four runs in five games this week. Both Alabama A&M and Dayton were simply overmatched against Tennessee’s arms and while that’s expected, they won’t be the only opponents that way.
Even some SEC teams aren’t going to have answers for this pitching staff that is elite at the top and extremely deep.
Seth Halvorsen looked as good in his second outing of the season as he did in his first. He’s going to be an extremely valuable weapon in the bullpen and perhaps the greatest proof of the Vols’ embarrassment of riches on the mound.
Freshman AJ Russell made his debut this week and allowed just one baserunner in 4.1 innings pitched. The tall right-hander was the first Vol out of the bullpen on the weekend and while that likely wouldn’t have been the case in a tighter game it was still telling.
Vitello raved about Russell and the Franklin native looked phenomenal. How serious his role will be going forward is to be determined but that would be a surprising development.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the pitching so far this season is that Camden Sewell and Wyatt Evans have yet to pitch with minor injuries. Sewell is a highly successful veteran and Evans might be the best left-handed arm on the team.
The other encouraging part is that Chase Dollander has allowed four of the runs. Not that he’s been bad, but he certainly won’t be any type of weakness.
Which left-handed arms emerge as consistent pieces out of the bullpen is my biggest question about the pitching staff eight games into the season.
Through those eight games, Tennessee’s allowed just nine runs and seven earned runs.
Let’s Talk About Centerfield
Before the season we wrote how Tennessee’s infield is settled, we have an idea of what the catching rotation will look like but the outfield is very unclear.
We are starting to answer some of those questions. Jared Dickey and Griffin Merritt are going to be every day starters. That’s not entirely shocking but either could have spent time at designated hitter and we haven’t seen that often.
The big question is who ends up in centerfield most often. We’ve seen Jared Dickey, Christian Scott, Kyle Booker and Hunter Ensley all earn time there.
Scott is the best defensive option but his bat is going to keep him from being the every day starter there.
Ensley’s bat isn’t elite either and Josh Elander noted that he’s more natural in the corner outfield spots following Sunday’s series finale.
The best thing for Tennessee would be if Kyle Booker grabbed the reins of that spot and ran with it but that just hasn’t happened yet this season. The junior has been extremely up-and-down and went zero-of-six with four strikeouts this season.
Dickey just feels a step slow for that spot, especially given his lack of experience there. It doesn’t mean he can’t help out there, but it doesn’t seem like a consistent, long term answer.
And that kind of feels like where things stand right now. There’s no great option and it’s going to be by committee— at least for the time being.
“We trust a lot of guys out there,” Elander said Sunday. “I think getting guys reps in all three spots is important. I know Coach Vitello when he does the lineups in the scrimmages, guys will play one inning in left, one in center, one in right, so creating that versatility for all the guys allows it to where we don’t have to be, ‘Hey, you’re the centerfielder.’ Our guys take pride in being able to play all three.”
That’s a fine outlook and positive spin on things, but it feels like that’s a real weak spot for Tennessee right now. Its best defenders’ bats haven’t been good enough— especially as Austen Jaslove fills in for Maui Ahuna— and its best bats just aren’t natural centerfielders.
Maybe freshman Dylan Dreiling or Reese Chapman can grab the job but that doesn’t seem likely. I’m confident Tennessee will have answers to most its questions before it opens SEC play. This is the one question I wonder about.
After three years of Drew Gilbert being a phenomenal defender and anchor in the outfield, Tennessee is in a different spot this season in center. It’s an important question too as this offense isn’t nearly as overpowered as last season. Tennessee will win games with pitching and defense.
We know its pitching is elite but the defense hasn’t proven it yet and center field is the biggest question mark.
Some Thoughts On Tony Vitello, Maui Ahuna
We’ve talked about the action on the field, now let’s get to the most interesting part of the weekend— head coach Tony Vitello’s suspension.
Let’s start with the most important detail: the University of Tennessee suspended Vitello— not the NCAA nor the SEC. The suspension didn’t take Vitello aback either. I say all that to say, this weekend’s suspension is nothing to hit the panic button over.
The suspension stems from Maui Ahuna’s recruitment and impermissible contact Tennessee made with Ahuna. Tampering is another word to describe it, as Outkick’s Trey Wallace did in his Friday report.
So what does all this mean for Maui Ahuna?
I’ve detected more optimism from Tennessee surrounding Ahuna receiving eligibility in the last five days or so and the Vols were hoping to hear something from the NCAA last Thursday or Friday. Obviously that never came and Tennessee now thinks they’ll hear something in coming days.
So I think the Ahuna eligibility side of things will be resolved in the next week and I think it will be positive news for Tennessee. Now the NCAA is unpredictable, as you all know, and it’s unwise to think there’s no way Tennessee could receive bad news or that things could be further delayed.
My question is whether Vitello’s weekend suspension against Dayton will be enough to appease the NCAA. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NCAA hand him another short suspension or slap the program in the wrist with some minor infractions.
In the long term, I don’t think this is very serious. To my knowledge, the NCAA isn’t looking at anything other than this specific situation. While the NCAA could hand out some additional punishment, I doubt it would be anything overly serious.