SEC Tournament Semifinals Preview: No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Kentucky

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics

HOOVER, Ala.— No. 1 Tennessee has eased its way through the SEC Tournament thus far.

The Vols opened postseason play with a 10-1 win over No. 8 Vanderbilt on Thursday before taking down No. 4 LSU with a 5-2 win on Friday night to advance to the semifinal round on Saturday night.

However, Tennessee’s road to a second straight tournament championship appearance will get just a little bit more difficult as they are now set to face a red-hot No. 12 Kentucky after the Wildcats downed LSU Saturday afternoon.

Tennessee vs. Kentucky in 2022

Tennessee will get its chance for revenge on Saturday and an opportunity to even the season series against the Wildcats after they handed the Vols their first and only series loss in the 2022 regular season.

The Wildcats stunned Tennessee in game one with a 13th inning walk-off in Lexington. Tennessee had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in that game before the bats went quiet and Kentucky was able to score three straight to down the Vols.

Game two of the series took a little longer than the first game due to a weather delay that split the game into two. The Wildcats jumped out on Tennessee early taking a 3-0 lead before the Vols put two runs on the board to cut the lead to one. Tennessee wasn’t able to make any more ground as Oraj Anu drove in two more runs to give the Wildcats a 5-2 win and the series of the Vols.

Tennessee did salvage game three behind home runs from Cortland Lawson and Jordan Beck and solid performances on the mound from freshman Drew Beam and senior Redmond Walsh.

Kentucky in the Tournament

The Wildcats entered the SEC Tournament facing an immediate elimination game against No. 5 Auburn. The two teams played a tight game, but a go-ahead home run from Oraj Anu in the top of the ninth lifted the Wildcats past the Tigers 3-1 for their first win in the tournament.

In the second round, Kentucky faced an LSU team coming off a sweep over Vanderbilt in the regular season finale. While the game was back and forth early, the Tigers, led by SEC Co-Player of the Year Dylan Crews and freshman Josh Pearson, were able to take town the Wildcats 11-6 and force them into elimination once again.

That elimination game was against Vanderbilt. The Wildcats dominated in a 10-2 win, capitalizing on Vanderbilt defensive mistakes while every starter recorded a hit and six starters drove in a run.

The win over Vanderbilt put Kentucky in yet another elimination game, this time a rematch with LSU. The Wildcats jumped on the Tigers early, scoring in X of eight offensive innings. Six Wildcats recorded a hit led by ninth-hole hitter Jacob Plastiak who went 3-4 with a home run. Despite the big offensive win, it was the pitching that made Kentucky stand out.

The Wildcats went six innings of no hit baseball behind a stellar effort from starter Tyler Bosma. LSU managed to scrape across a couple of runs to break up the no hitter in the seventh inning, but the Wildcats held on for the 7-2 win and a chance at the championship game.

Tennessee in the Tournament

The Vols did a lot of waiting before they finally played a game in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee opened it’s postseason play with a 10-1 win over Vanderbilt behind a great pitching performance and consistent offense. The Vols were able to win their fourth game over the Commodores this season, the first time that has happened since 1994.

Tennessee again waited for it’s second game against LSU, which didn’t start until 10:10 p.m. local time. Despite the late start, the atmosphere for the Friday night game under the lights was electric and the game followed suit.

Vols’ starter and SEC pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander picked up nine strikeouts in 6.2 innings of work, before handing they keys to the bullpen, who finished the game holding LSU scoreless.

The offense got out to an early lead before a couple of errors made it a close game. Tennessee, however, responded quickly to retake a lead and finish the scoring in the 5-2 win, advancing the Vols to Saturday’s semifinal round.

Pitching Matchups

Tennessee has a few options they could use in Saturday’s game, however the most likely starter is freshman Chase Burns.

Burns has had a pretty good freshman year, earning a spot on the All-SEC Second Team and the SEC All-Freshman Team after going 7-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 88 strikeouts to just 22 walks.

Burns’ 2.53 ERA was the second best in the SEC and his 88 strikeouts was good for fourth best. Burns also was in the top 15 in opposing batting average, wins, runs allowed, and doubles allowed.

While the 6’4, 205-pound right-hander saw some struggles in the middle parts of the season, there has been no doubt he is one of the country’s top young pitchers. His best outing came against the No. 1 Ole Miss, where he went seven scoreless innings while striking out 11 batter.

Burns confidently turned down his first chance in pro baseball after being drafted by the San Diego padres in the 20th round of the 2021 MLB Draft. Instead, he stuck with commitment to come play at Tennessee under Tony Vitello, where he has grown into a national name in college baseball.

Kentucky info will be updated when starters are announced.

Matchup Thoughts

Kentucky has played a lot of baseball in the past week. Their matchup against the Vols will be their fifth game in four days and their second game on Saturday.

While the Wildcats are riding a hot streak, four games played compared to Tennessee’s two is set to play a huge factor in Saturday’s semifinal round. The Vols should have almost their entire pitching arsenal available outside of a couple arms (Kirby Connell and Redmond Walsh) while Kentucky has burned through a lot of arms in their four games.

Factoring in the advantage in both rest and available arms with the “revenge” aspect that Tennessee may or may not be playing with, I expect a pretty easy win for Tennessee to make its second straight tournament championship game.

Keys to the Game

1. Get going early on offense

When Tennessee played Kentucky during the regular season, the Vols’ bats went cold in the first two games. Kentucky pitching was able to shut down a Vols offense that led the nation in just about every category. With Kentucky low on arms, the Vols should look to get going offensively. Tennessee was also shut down in the final three innings against LSU on Friday, so getting off to a hot start is critical.

2 Use availability to their advantage

Tennessee has only played two games in this tournament while Kentucky has played four. The Vols should be very well rested compared to the Wildcats, so Tennessee should use that to their advantage and be aggressive to try and force some mistakes from the Kentucky pitchers/defense. On the flip side, Tennessee has almost all of its arms available, so Vitello shouldn’t feel the need to ride one guy all night. Tennessee can mix and match some things on the mound and use it to their advantage.

3. Don’t let Kentucky rally

While the Wildcats may be depleted on rest, they are still playing with a “nothing-to-lose” attitude. In fact, a win might guarantee them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, so they could be fighting for their postseason lives. If the Vols do get up, they can’t let Kentucky rally and put themselves in a position to upset Tennessee once again.

Where to Watch/Listen

Tennessee and Kentucky’s semifinal matchup can be caught on the SEC Network 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Texas A&M-Florida game. Vol fans can also listen to the game on the Vol Network with John Wilkerson on the call.