SEC Tournament Third-Round Preview: No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 4 LSU

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics

HOOVER, Ala.– With No. 1 Tennessee and No. 4 LSU each winning their Thursday night matchups, the two teams will meet in the winner’s bracket of the third round of the SEC Tournament on Friday. First pitch scheduled for 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Texas A&M-Alabama game.

The loser of Tennessee-LSU will face Kentucky in an elimination game on Saturday, while the winner advance to the semifinal round Saturday night. The winner of the first Saturday game would go on to play the winner of this game in the semifinals for a chance to go to the SEC Tournament championship.

Both teams were scheduled to play their tournament opening game on Wednesday, but several weather delays pushed back the original schedule to Thursday night.

Vols in the Tournament

Tennessee opened up its 2022 SEC Tournament with a 10-1 win over No. 8 Vanderbilt. Sophomore right-hander Blade Tidwell got the start, going 4.1 innings, allowing just three hits and one run.

While Tennessee dipped into it’s bullpen early and often, no one that appeared in Thursday’s game used up their availability for Friday. Kirby Connell went 1.2 innings, throwing 32 pitches. Camden Sewell went 1.1 innings, throwing 17 pitches. Will Mabrey went 0.2 innings throwing 11 pitches. Ben Joyce went 1 inning, throwing 11 pitches.

Tony Vitello should have his complete arsenal available against the Tigers.

Offensively, the Vols put on a show against Vanderbilt. Drew Gilbert led the charge going 2-4 with two RBIs. Leadoff man Seth Stephenson found himself on base three times, scoring a run each time.

The Vols had 10 hits from nine different batters and RBIs from eight of them, While the long ball wasn’t a major part in Tennessee’s win, freshman Blake Burke and junior Cortland Lawson were able to each leave the yard to help put the game away.

Defensively, Tennessee played a pretty clean game. Senior Luc Lipcius had a few good plays over at first base, and Trey Lipscomb made the play of the day as he barehanded a ground ball and threw out the runner at first on an off-balance throw while moving to strand the bases loaded.

Tennessee looked like Tennessee, and won in dominant fashion in all facets of the game to reach the 50 win mark.

LSU in the Tournament

The Tigers opened their SEC Tournament with an 11-6 win over No. 12 Kentucky.

It was an offensive show for LSU as the collected 13 hits in the win over Kentucky. Six Tigers had a hit, three of which had multi-hit days. They were led by true freshman outfielder Josh Pearson, who went 5-5 with three RBIs and three runs scored, including a two-run home run to cap off the scoring.

Pearson was accompanied by Co-SEC Player of the Year Dylan Crews, who went 2-3 with an RBI, two walks and four runs scored, and Tyler McManus who went 3-5 with three RBIs and two doubles.

Pitching wise, LSU was able to limit their bullpen usage. The Tigers used four total arms including their starter. Out of their bullpen, the most used arm was Devin Fontenot, who went 1.2 innings and threw 48 pitches.

The Tigers pitching staff gave up two home runs to Kentucky, the only extra base hits for the Wildcats. They also only issued five walks while picking up nine strikeouts.

LSU, like Tennessee, should have their full bullpen available for Friday’s matchup.

Projected Starters

Tony Vitello confirmed on Thursday that sophomore right-hander Chase Dollander would start Friday’s third-round game.

Dollander put together a solid SEC Pitcher of the Year campaign in his first season in the SEC by going 8-0 with a 2.30 ERA and collecting 90 strikeouts to just nine walks in 62.2 innings pitched. Dollander also had a 0.70 WHIP and had a .158 opponent batting average allowed.

Despite missing some time from an injury after a line drive hit him in the throwing elbow in a game against Alabama, Dollander has been Tennessee’s most impressive pitcher in an elite starting rotation. The sophomore didn’t seem to miss a beat.

His 2.30 ERA and .158 opponent batting average led all qualified SEC pitchers in 2022. He was also tied for second in both strikeouts and wins among SEC pitchers.

Dollander also led the SEC in hits allowed (35) and walks allowed (9). Only 12 of the 35 hits were for extra bases (six doubles, six home runs).

Photo Credit: University of Tennessee Athletics

LSU has not announced a starter for Friday’s matchup yet. The first probable starter is sophomore right-hander Blake Money, who went 2-4 with a 5.25 ERA, collecting 60 strikeouts and 20 walks in 60 innings pitched. The 6-7, 240-pound Spring Hill, Tenn. native started in 12 of his 15 appearances for the Tigers.

Money allowed 63 hits in 2022, 25 of which were for extra bases. Of those 25 XBHs, 14 were home runs.

In his 15 appearances, Money has only gone more than six innings four times. He struggles early in games and gives up a lot of hits and a lot of runs.

If Money is not the guy on the mound for LSU, it will be sophomore right-hander Ty Floyd who posted a 5-3 record with 3.12 ERA and 58 strikeouts to 20 walks in 49 innings pitched. The 6-2, 194-pound Georgia native appeared in 14 games for the Tigers including eight starts.

Floyd appeared against four SEC teams in the 2022 regular season. His first was against Texas A&M, where he lasted just two innings giving up three hits, two of which were solo home runs. Floyd bounced back in his next SEC game against Mississippi State, where he threw a perfect inning against the Bulldogs.

He came out of the bullpen against Alabama, throwing four innings of one-run baseball. He did the same against Ole Miss, going six innings and allowed a solo home run as the only hit.

Floyd’s best SEC outing, however, came against Vanderbilt in the final weekend of the regular season, where he went 5.1 innings of four-hit baseball and only allowing one run via a solo home run.

Of the 31 hits Floyd gave up in 2022, 16 were extra base hits (eight home runs, eight doubles).

Keys to the Game

1. Limit the big innings

LSU scored three runs in three different innings in their Thursday night win over Kentucky. Tennessee leads the country in ERA by 0.69 and has the SEC leader in ERA on the mound in Dollander. If the Vols can limit the big innings from LSU, they should have enough power from their strong offense to move on to the semi-finals.

2. Stop the Crews-Pearson show

The leadoff duo that features the Co-SEC Player of the Year for the Tigers combined for a 7-8 performance with four RBIs and seven runs scored against Kentucky. The two single handedly beat the Wildcats from the first two spots of the order. Dollander needs to get an early jump on the pair and get into a strong rhythm early. He needs to make the rest of the Tigers lineup beat him and not let Crews and Pearson run the show.

3. Stay patient at the plate

LSU had the fifth fewest walks allowed in the SEC in 2022. However, they have given up 443 hits and 151 XBHs, including the sixth most home runs (64). If Tennessee can stay patient and get runners on the basepaths, they can take advantage of their offensive power and cash in some big innings.

Matchup Thoughts

While LSU hasn’t seen the 2022 Vols yet, they were left with a bad taste in their mouth from the Big Orange in 2021. Tennessee not only swept the Tigers in the regular season, but they swept them in the 2021 NCAA super regional tournament in Knoxville to end LSU’s season.

I would look for LSU to put up a fight against the Vols. Even with Dollander on the mound, the Tigers are going to try to be aggressive and get any advantage they can over top-ranked Tennessee. LSU will more than likely lean on the Crews/Pearson duo to lead their offense.

For Tennessee, I see the Vols doing big numbers offensively. LSU’s probable starters are not known for limiting opponents offensively, and with Tennessee being the best offensive team in the country, I don’t see them starting today. Extra base hits have been an issue for the Tigers, and with the ball flying the way it has been on Friday in the humid Hoover heat, I’d expect some fireworks from the Vols.

How to Watch/Listen

Vol fans can catch the game on the SEC Network 30 minutes following the Texas A&M-Alabama game. Fans can listen to the game on the Vol Network with John Wilkerson.