“We Needed That.” Blade Tidwell’s SEC Tournament Start Provides Tennessee With Even More Fire Power

Photo Credit: Jake Nichols, Volunteer Country on Sports Illustrated
By Joseph Bonanno

HOOVER, Ala.– In 2021, Blade Tidwell was a freshman star who was primed to take over as Tennessee’s “ace” in his sophomore season.

However, a shoulder injury prior to the 2022 season delayed that designation and forced the Tennessee standout to take a step back and find a new role in a deep Tennessee rotation.

Tidwell showed up to Tennessee’s campus in the fall of 2020 a highly touted freshman. He was poised to be drafted out of Lorretta High School, however, a COVID-shortened MLB draft kept him from that accomplishment. What it did do was bring Tidwell to Tennessee to showcase his talent at the national level.

Instantly winning a starting spot in the weekend rotation as a freshman, Tidwell went 10-3 in 2021 while leading the team with a 3.74 ERA. He finished second on the team with 90 strikeouts and 98.2 innings pitched and his 10 wins were the second most by a freshman in program history.

Tidwell was becoming a national name in college baseball and was ready to take it to the next level in 2022.

Entering the season, Tidwell was named to the 2022 NCBWA Preseason All-American First Team, the 2022 Baseball America Preseason All-American First Team, and the 2022 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Preseason All-American First Team. Not to mention he was mocked in the first round of every 2022 MLB draft board ahead of his sophomore season.

Despite all the hype Tidwell was gaining from his spectacular freshman season, the ride into his sophomore year wouldn’t be as smooth as he may have hoped. On Jan. 27, 2022, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello announced that Tidwell would be forced to miss some time due to a shoulder injury sustained during the preseason.

At the time, the injury seemed like a huge blow to the Vols who lost two 2021 starters in Chad Dallas (drafted in 2021 MLB Draft) and Will Heflin (graduated from Tennessee). The loss of Tennessee’s probable Friday ace created a lot of worry about whether the pitching staff would be able to compete in the SEC, in which Tennessee was already picked to finish fourth in the SEC East.

Those worries were quickly subdued when Tennessee’s two freshmen in Chase Burns and Drew Beam (the eventual SEC Freshman of the Year) and transfer sophomore Chase Dollander (the eventual SEC Pitcher of the Year) proved to be one of the best rotations in all of college baseball.

Even though Tennessee was enjoying the success of its new, young rotation, there was just one issue: where would Blade Tidwell fit in when he returned from injury?

The answer: wherever he was needed.

Tidwell made his return to the field on March 30 in a midweek contest, starting the game against Western Carolina. In his only inning, Tidwell saw some struggles, but was finally able to knock some of the rust off and get back on the mound.

In the 2022 regular season, the sophomore appeared in 10 games for the Vols, with six starts under his belt, posting a 2-1 record. He had a 2.63 ERA with 38 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 24 innings pitched.

Photo Credit: Jason Cantrell, Cadence Captures

While Tidwell only appeared just a handful of times, he proved to be a valuable asset even though he wasn’t a full time starter.. He was able to open some games by going a few innings while getting comfortable in his return from injury before moving to a more permanent role coming out of the bullpen.

But Tidwell would quickly find himself back in the weekend rotation when Dollander was hit by a line drive in his throwing elbow and forced to miss two weeks due to the injury. Tidwell was able to step right in and give Tennessee an experienced replacement for their most consistent starter.

In fact, his best outing came in a start against Florida where Tidwell went 4.2 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits while striking out five. However, when Dollander returned, Tidwell again found himself bouncing around to wherever Tennessee needed him.

One of those places was in the postseason, starting with the “gauntlet” that is the SEC Tournament. A lot of back-to-back games that can eat up arms very quickly, especially for teams that make a deep run. It was the lack of pitching that led to Tennessee’s SEC Tournament championship loss to Arkansas in 2021, so having Tidwell as a fourth starter was huge for the Vols.

But before Vitello threw Tidwell into the fire of the tournament, he needed to make sure Tidwell was ready.

Vitello called Tidwell’s number against the 2021 Nation Champions in Mississippi State, where he threw three scoreless and hitless frames while striking out five to secure Tennessee a series win in the final weekend of the regular season. It was exactly what Tidwell needed to do in order to get the ball in Tennessee’s SEC Tournament opener.

“I thought he looked like a different guy during Mississippi State,” said Tennessee catcher Evan Russell. “I thought he was on a mission, and the box score clearly showed, because his velo was high, he was in there to do a job and that was to win the game.”

Following his performance at Mississippi State, Tidwell was set to be the opening pitcher for the Vols’ SEC Tournament run and it was up to him to prove he belonged back in the starting rotation.

And prove that is what he did.

Tidwell went 4.1 innings against Vanderbilt in the Vols’ opening game of the SEC Tournament, holding the Commodores to just three hits and one run while striking out three. It may not have been the “vintage” Blade Tidwell from 2021, but it was the perfect start for him and just what Tennessee needed to start their week in the tournament.

“It needed to happen. He needed to show he could start because against Mississippi State, he was arguably the best reliever for both teams,” said Vitello following the Vols’ win over Vanderbilt on Thursday. “Then tonight he started against a team that played really well to beat Mississippi and that’s dynamic throughout the lineup. We needed that.”

The SEC Tournament start was just the beginning of Tidwell’s usage in the 2022 postseason. The Vols are not only set to host a regional, but are expected to make a run to the super regionals and eventually make it back to Omaha. And if that run were to happen, Tidwell’s starting experience would become even more valuable for Tennessee.

“We’ll see what’s going on moving forward, but now that he’s back in a rhythm and a routine and he’s gotten himself where he’s more healthy than ever, now we’ve kind of got a weapon that we can choose to use as we see fit,” Vitello said. “And where he’s been great is he’s been the one guy around the program more than those other three guys, To, Burns and Beam, it’s just been tell me what to do and I’ll do it to make life easier on those three guys and also to be a good teammate. He just wants to win.”

Regardless of how Tidwell finishes his 2022 season at Tennessee, he will have a lot to show for himself during his time on Rocky Top. Not only has he shown he can be an elite starter, but he’s proven his versatility and desire to win no matter his role. It’s a mindset that has been infectious among the Tennessee players, and one that will help Tidwell advance and succeed at the next level.

For now, however, it’s on to the next game for Tidwell as he looks to help Tennessee continue its impressive 2022 season in whatever way he can.