Tennessee Baseball Preview

By Mark Nagi

It’s officially baseball time in Tennessee.

Yes, I know that the Vols played their first game of the year more a month ago, but last weekend UT opened the SEC schedule with a three-game series at Missouri. And when conference play begins… that’s when things really get fun.

At last glance, Tennessee was ranked second in the nation, which seems about right for this program, which has become one of the nation’s best… and most despised.

Things started to finally turn around for Tennessee baseball when Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello was hired as the Vols head coach in June 2017.

Now in his 6th year, Vitello has turned UT into a team to be reckoned with. In 2021 the Vols reached the College World Series for the first time in 16 years. In 2022 they had one of the most dominant regular seasons in SEC history. They were ranked number one for most of the year, winning 57 games, plus the SEC’s regular season and tournament titles before being upset by Notre Dame in the Super Regionals.

The Vols led the SEC in home runs with 158, a .308 batting average, and RBIs with 574. Critics scoffed at the cozy confines of Lindsey Nelson Stadium, but Vols pitchers didn’t seem to mind. They led the SEC in strikeouts with 695 and a 2.51 ERA, while opponents batted an SEC low .199.

Yeah, they were good. Really good.  The Vols likely won’t match that level of dominance, but it isn’t like this team will be scraping the floor of the conference either.

Let’s look at the pitching staff. Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam make up the best 1-2-3 rotation in the country. In 2022, they went a combined 26-3 with 273 strikeouts while giving up only 59 walks.

Dollander, a junior, was the SEC pitcher of the year in 2022, posting a 2.39 ERA while holding hitters to only a .175 batting average. He could be the top pick in the 2023 MLB Draft.

Burns was National Freshman of the Year in 2022 with an ERA of 2.91 and a unanimous Freshman All-American with an ERA of 2.72.

Outside of the starters, Camden Sewell is using an extra year of eligibility due to the shortened 2020 COVID season. He appeared in 26 games a year ago with a 2.52 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 50 innings in 2022.

Vitello has few pitching issues.

In terms of the batting lineup, the Vols said goodbye to seven players who hit at least 11 home runs in 2022. Six position players were drafted, including the entire starting outfield of Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck, and Seth Stephenson. Cincinnati transfer Griffin Merritt gets a lot of playing time, as does sophomore Kyle Booker. Christian Scott is becoming an everyday player.

Incoming freshmen Reese Chapman and Dylan Dreiling will also be in the outfield mix. Jared Dickey should split time between catcher and the outfield after hitting .380 last season.

The infield sees some familiar faces despite fan favorites Evan Russell, Lipscomb, and Luc Lipcius leaving Knoxville.

Charlie Taylor, JUCO transfer Cal Stark and Ryan Miller are each available behind home plate.

Kansas transfer Maui Ahuna is the man at shortstop, after finally getting cleared by the NCAA. Christian Moore will start at second base after hitting .305 as a true freshman and playing in 51 games a year ago.

Alabama transfer Zane Denton, a Brentwood native, is at third base with sophomore Blake Burke at first base.

The Vols are locked and loaded. Expect to see them in Omaha.