Photo via Tennessee Athletics
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tennessee Baseball suffered its first loss of the season at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats in the 2023 season opener. The Vols’ bats were cold in the desert, and despite strong performances from starting pitcher Chase Dollander and reliever Seth Halvorsen, Tennessee couldn’t muster up enough offense to get the win.
“One team was better than the other tonight,” Tennessee Head Coach Tony Vitello said. “I think the one thing for us, if you’re going to spin it into a positive, we probably took more things from the game that we have to get better at or work on. Some of them will be addressed between now and tomorrow’s game, hopefully.”
After a solid first inning in which Tennessee scored their lone run, the Vols recorded only four hits the rest of the game and could never find any rhythm at the plate. Arizona starting pitcher T.J. Nichols gave Tennessee fits throughout, retiring 19 of 25 batters faced and striking out six Volunteers.
Arizona’s bullpen picked up where Nichols left off, shutting out the Volunteers in the final three innings.
Tennessee’s pitching certainly kept up with Arizona’s, as Dollander turned in a solid season-opening start, and Halvorsen had a fine Tennessee debut.
“He got into a rhythm and showed who he is,” Vitello said regarding Dollander. “Halvy (Seth Halvorsen) fortunately came out and was in a rhythm immediately which was pretty outstanding considering the amount of time he’s had off. The two of them were both great. I think the exciting thing is Do(llander) knows he can throw a little bit better.”
Dollander had far from the best start to his night, as the junior loaded the bases with just one out, allowing a sac fly to bring a Wildcat home. Continuing into the second inning, Dollander gave up a leadoff home run to Arizona third baseman Tony Bullard, but the junior settled into a groove shortly thereafter.
The Evans, Georgia, native went on to retire his next 10 batters, throwing five strikeouts in the process.
Just like that, Chase Dollander was back to doing Chase Dollander things.
Dollander’s night finished in the bottom of the fifth inning with a runner on first and two outs. The Vols ace had exceeded 80 pitches, and Vitello brought in Halvorsen.
Halvorsen surrendered a hit against his first batter, but, like Dollander, it didn’t take long for the former Missouri Tiger to get into a rhythm. The Minnesota native put together a 1-2-3 inning in the sixth and retired the side around a one-out single in the seventh, keeping Arizona at two runs.
“Just great to get him out there and for him to do as well as he did was phenomenal,” Vitello said regarding Halvorsen’s performance. “But the fact that he kind of settled in, if I’m not mistaken, faced their best hitter, or at least their most hyped up hitter. It’s not my place to say who their best guy is, and got in a groove right away and got a lot of bad swings. I think if we played a little better defense he maybe gets through the game and finishes it. But maybe gave him a couple more opportunities offensively to wear them down a little bit. He’s only been built up to go four innings for us and that’s about what he did.”
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But as Dollander and Halvorsen shut down the Wildcats offense, the Vols offensive sputtering never stopped. After the third inning, Tennessee never had multiple runners on base in any inning.
Pinch-hitter Cal Stark gave Tennessee some life in the top of the seventh with a leadoff single, but Tennessee couldn’t do anything with it.
Blake Burke did the same in the eighth, delivering a leadoff single to left field, once again, the Vols couldn’t gain any momentum. Zane Denton and Kyle Booker struck out swinging, and Hunter Ensley, who was the first Tennessee batter to face Arizona reliever Dawson Netz, sent a hard-hit line drive down the third base line that was impressively defensed by third baseman Tony Bullard for the final out.
“Their third baseman, technically, you could argue made a game saving play,” Vitello said.
Halvorsen remained in his groove in the eighth inning, retiring his first two batters. But Arizona’s cleanup hitter Kiko Romero gave the Wildcats’ offense life with a two-out single, and second baseman Mac Bingham followed it up with an RBI double that ultimately was the death knell for the Vols.
Bingham’s double gave Arizona a 3-1 lead, and although Kirby Connell entered the game and prevented any further damage, Tennessee could not make up the necessary ground in the ninth.
Stark recorded his second hit in as many at-bats with one out in the ninth, but Arizona reliever Trevor Long retired the next two Vols to end the game.
Tennessee will look to bounce back tomorrow night against Grand Canyon University in Phoenix at 8 p.m. ET.