The first month of the baseball season for Tennessee has had plenty of ups and downs, putting it nicely.
There have been a handful of good moments, like winning five out of six games after dropping the season opening series with Maryland at home. However, there has also been plenty of bad moments, like a 21-2 shelling from James Madison on March 7th.
Plus, having already dropped two games to ETSU, both played at home to make things worse. The third and final meeting comes on April 17th when Tennessee takes a day trip to Johnson City.
However, what’s behind you is behind you and you can only focus on the present.
Tennessee hosted Alabama this past weekend for their second SEC series of the year and the first one at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. It was a big series for both teams to say the least.
Tennessee dropped two out of three games last weekend at Ole Miss and needed this one to stay out the SEC cellar, a place this baseball program has gotten to know far to well over the last decade.
The weekend brought two things that first-year head coach Tony Vitello has been searching for, consistency at the plate and consistency on the mound.
Game one on Friday brought hot bats and excitement. Tennessee plated the first two runs of the game.
The first one came off of a Brodie Leftridge single scoring Andre Lipcius from third in the bottom of the first inning.
Then again in the fourth, freshman Ethan Russell doubled to left scoring Leftridge and giving Tennessee led 2-0 lead.
Alabama answered with three runs in the fifth inning. Tennessee would tie the game at 3 off a Santiago sac fly. A single by Brandon Trammel gave Tennessee the lead back 4-3 after six.
The finish appeared to be heading in a wild direction as Alabama tied it with a RBI single in the eighth.
With a Volunteer on every base in the bottom of the ninth, Alabama pitcher Deacon Medders faced a difficult situation with the game on the line.
Patience by Russell with two outs earned him a walk, Benito Santiago would score and Tennessee took game one, 5-4 takes to the walk-off walk.
Games two and three played out a lot different then most would expect.
Saturday’s game would be a wash as Lindsey Nelson Stadium and the rest of Knoxville was waterlogged thanks to a large weather system.
Sunday would wind up turning into a double header of two seven inning games, with game one’s first pitch set for high noon.
Game two was slow paced and low scoring and looked more like one of the old Third Saturday in October matchups on the gridiron.
Tennessee didn’t record a hit until the fourth inning as Alabama starter Jake Walters, a man with an ERA north of seven, was noticeably putting out the Tennessee bats that were on fire the night before.
Crimson Tide’s lone run was scored by pinch runner Connor Stutts on a throwing error by Vols second baseman Jay Charleston in the top of the fifth inning.
The way Walters was pitching, it looked like that’s all the Tide would need. However, the Alabama infield broke down in the bottom of the sixth with two errors that allowed Justin Ammons to score a unearned run.
Then it was déjà vu all over again for Russell, as he would draw another walk with the bases loaded and two outs scoring the eventual winning run.
This gave the Vols the series win tanks to two bases loaded walks. The win also gave UT its first SEC series win of the year and put the Vols in line to sweep the Crimson Tide for just the third time in program history.
Game three was more of Tennessee’s offense taking over, as the Vols came out in the bottom of the first and punched the Tide in the mouth by immediately plating two runs.
Santiago singled up the middle to score Lipcius before advancing all the way to third on a error by the Tides center fielder.
Charleston would come in to score on the throwing error as well to give the Vols a 2-0 lead after the first.
Tennessee’s pitching and defense silenced the Alabama bats from there (they didn’t make much noise outside of game one anyways).
Ammons would hit a single in the bottom of the sixth that scored Russell and would wind up being all the insurance Tennessee needed to complete the three-game sweep.
But what makes this win bigger than it is?
Yes, it’s a sweep and it’s over rival Alabama, but there’s more to it.
First, for the past decade Tennessee baseball has been in a free fall and it has had multiple hard hits on their way to the basement of the SEC. Tennessee hasn’t finished better than fifth in over a decade, the last time coming in 2007 when Tennessee finished fourth in the SEC East.
This past weekend’s series sweep over the Tide was Tennessee’s first sweep over an SEC opponent since 2015 when Tennessee hosted Mississippi State in the last weekend of the season.
Secondly, Vitello has searched for consistency from this team since game one.
He’s found himself going to his bullpen too often and using up his arms in less important games. Another thing is the inconsistency at the plate.
It feels as if this team has taken one step forward with a good day at the plate, but will then take two steps back. That wasn’t the case with either of these issues this past weekend.
Tennessee only went to the bullpen twice, first for a middle reliever in Donovan Benoit and then Zach Linginfelter came in to close out game one.
Garrett Stallings and Will Neely both went the distance Sunday.
As a coach, anytime you have two guys go the distance in a three-game series, that’s a blessing.
Meanwhile, at the plate Tennessee never took a step back.
The Vols averaged a .291 batting average over the weekend and while it looked like Sunday might be a rough day, the team rose to the occasion and the bats woke up just enough for them to take both games and the series.
Nothing may really come of this series and Tennessee still might be a year or two away from real success, but you can’t help but fill there’s something special on the way.
Written by: Jake Wallman
Edited by: Sam Forman