College World Series preview: Tennessee

 Barry Allen and Chris Lee   in Baseball

Tennessee makes its first appearance in the college baseball series since 2005 after an SEC East title.

Jake Rucker photo courtesy of Tennessee athletics.

Tennessee Volunteers (50-16)

RPI: 3 (No. 12 strength of schedule)

League finish: first (SEC East)

Coach: Tony Vitello (134-66)

CWS appearance: fifth

National titles: none

In four years under head coach Tony Vitello, Tennessee baseball has made the worst-to-first journey.

The Volunteers were last in the SEC Eastern Division from 2016-18. Four years later, Tennessee won its first SEC Eastern Division championship, hosted its first NCAA super regional and is headed to the College World Series.

How did the Vols do it? Vitello used a mix of veterans (seven seniors have played a prominent role) and newcomers to over haul and down-trodden program into a national contender.

Tennessee believed it could win and Vitello showed them the way. The Vols lead the SEC with seven walk-off wins and seven grand slams and both of those components propelled them to a thrilling 9-8 win over Wright State in the NCAA Knoxville Regional and began the post-season magic.

Tennessee swept through the most difficult regional in the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket with wins over Wright State and Liberty (twice), and then swept post-season power LSU (playing in its 15th NCAA super regional) in two games in the super regionals to punch their ticket to Omaha.

The lineup: (Estimated runs created per 27 outs made, according to a Bill James formula. The Vols will face Texas right-hander Tristan Stephens on Tuesday.)

1. Liam Spence (R), SS (9.8) vs. RHP: .342/.477/.476

2. Max Ferguson (L), 2B (6.5) vs. RHP: 246/.380/.503

3. Jake Rucker (R), 3B (8.3) vs. RHP: .305/.375/.488

4. Drew Gilbert (L), CF (6.0) vs. RHP: .265/.332/.422

5. Evan Russell (R), LF (5.8) vs. RHP: .255/.348/.573

6. Luke Lipcius (L), 1B (6.5) vs. RHP: .285/.375/.581

7. Jordan Beck (R), RF (6.4) vs. RHP: .256/.307/.482

8. Pete Derkay (L), DH (7.0) vs. RHP: .312/412/.444

9. Connor Pavolony (R), C (6.2) vs. RHP: .275/.369/.451

Tennessee powered its way to Omaha by hitting 16 home runs in the NCAA Tournament.  The Vols lead all NCAA Tournament teams with 3.20 home runs per game in the national tournament. The 16 home runs rank second only to Notre Dame (21) in post-season play.

Tennessee brings 98 home runs to Omaha, the second-most in the SEC and fourth-most in the nation.  Five players have double figure home runs in the starting lineup.  Beck and Lipcius lead the way with 15 home runs each. Russell, who has two, three-home run games (LSU and Vanderbilt) under his belt, has 14 home runs. Ferguson belted 12 home runs after a slow start on offense. Gilbert rounds out the list with 10 homers.

For the Vols it’s not all about the long ball and that could bode well in a spacious TD Ameritrade Park.

Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks third nationally with 133 doubles.  Seven players have at least 10 doubles on the year. Rucker leads the SEC with 21 doubles and is one home run shy of becoming the sixth UT player with 10 or more home runs.

Tennessee also ranks second in the SEC and fifth in the NCAA with 330 walks. Spence and Ferguson rank in the top three in the SEC in walks. Spence leads the league and ranks fifth in the NCAA with 53 walks. Ferguson is third in the SEC with 46 walks. Spence also led the SEC with a .477 on-base percentage.

Pavolony missed time at midseason with a hand injury and it took some time for him to return to form, but he's hit better in recent weeks, including a two-hit, one-homer, three-RBI game vs. LSU in the super regional clincher. 

Pitching:

SP1: Chad Dallas (R), 11-2, 4.19 ERA ,96.2 IP, 1.19 baserunners/inning pitched, 7% free pass rate, 29% K (threw 63 pitches on 6-20)

SP2: Blade Tidwell (R), 10-3, 3.57 ERA, 95.2 IP, 1.24 BRIP, 9% FP, 22% K 

SP3: Will Heflin (L), 3-3, 4.07 ERA, 79.2 IP, 1.31 BRIP, 7% FP, 23% K

SP4: Mark McLaughlin (R), 2-0, 1.83 ERA, 34.1 IP, 1.09 BRIP, 16% FP, 29% K

CL: Sean Hunley (R), 7-4, 9 sv, 3.01 ERA, 71 IP, 1.05 BRIP, 6% FP, 26% K (11 / 6-20)

RP1: Camden Sewell (R), 4-1, 2 sv, 2.92 ERA, 1.12 BRIP, 11% FP, 22% K (17 / 6-20)

RP2: Kirby Connell (L), 1-1, 2 sv, 3.00 ERA, 1.17 BRIP, 3% FP, 22% K

RP3: Redmond Walsh (L), 5-1, 5 sv, 2.45 ERA, 35.2 IP, 1.19 BRIP, 6% FP, 25% K (10 / 6-20)

RP4: Elijah Pleasants (R), 2-1, 4.37 ERA, 22.2 IP, 10% FP, 13% K

On the mound, Tennessee did something no other SEC team accomplished during the regular season.

The Volunteers used the same starting rotation in all 14 series in 2021.

Dallas, Tidwell and Heflin made 49 of the team’s 66 starts on the mound. They combined for 24 wins and 282 strikeouts in 272 innings. 

Dallas (11) and Tidwell (10) both won 10 games and logged almost 100 innings. Heflin made 12 starts against SEC teams, including two in the post-season, but did not post a win in conference play. He was the winning pitcher against Liberty to clinch the NCAA Knoxville Regional. It was his first win since March.

The bullpen is deep and built for the Omaha bracket. In addition to the three weekend starters, Tennessee had eight relief pitchers with 12 or more appearances.  Hunley, who responsible for 16 wins (seven wins, nine saves), paced the staff with 33 appearances. Connell (26), Walsh (26) and Sewell (21) all had 20 relief appearances. Pleasants (15), McLaughlin (15), Housley (12) and Mabry (12) made double digit appearances. 

One key piece missing from the puzzle is Jackson Leath, who pitched only six innings before a season-ending injury in February.

The Volunteers had the fewest walks (162) of any pitching staff in the SEC. Tennessee leads the SEC in strikeout-to-walk (3.72) ratio. The Vols also rank second in the SEC and fifth in the NCAA with a 3.82 ERA.