By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Tennessee welcomed Dayton to Lindsey Nelson Stadium Friday night without Tony Vitello in the dugout. Despite missing their head coach, the Vols rolled on to a 12-2 win over the Flyers in the first of a three-game series.
The university announced prior to Friday night’s game that Vitello had been suspended for the weekend series following a self-reported recruiting violation within the Volunteers’ program, leaving assistant coach Josh Elander at the helm. Despite the news, the Vols didn’t miss a beat.
Statement from Tennessee Athletics: pic.twitter.com/iZnYKSq5PQ
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) February 24, 2023
Dayton grabbed an early lead after Marcos Pujols hit a two-run home run off of Tennessee starter Chase Dollander in the first inning. However, that was the only thing the Flyers were able to get off of the junior right-hander.
Dollander mowed through the Flyers’ lineup the rest of the way, racking up 12 strikeouts on the night, tying his career high at Tennessee. Dollander made it through 5.2 innings of work, allowing five hits, two runs, and only one walk on top of his 12-strikeout performance. Coming off his first loss in orange and white, it was a nice bounce-back win for the Friday night starter.
“Chase is gonna do what Chase does,” said Elander following the win. “He’s got elite stuff. Guys are gonna run into balls just because it’s a premium fastball. He has guys circling facing him a week before we play somebody. He’s the guy and he’s earned that.”
Even with Dollander’s dominant performance, it was Tennessee’s offense that really bounced back for the starter, providing much more backup Friday night than they did against Arizona a week prior.
The Vols were able to quickly erase Dayton’s two-run lead in the home half of the first inning thanks to an RBI single from Blake Burke and a sacrifice fly from Zane Denton. After Jared Dickey gave Tennessee the lead in the second with an RBI single of his own, the Vols never looked back.
A two-out rally that led to a five-run third inning extended Tennessee’s lead. Sophomore Austen Jaslove got it started with a two-RBI bloop single before Charlie Taylor continued his hot streak with an RBI double. Then, it was Dickey with his second home run of the week, a two-run shot that capped off the third-inning rally. Dickey led the Vols going 3-4 with three RBIs.
The Vols would add another run in the fourth after transfer outfielder Griffin Merritt launched his first homerun at Tennessee, two more in the seventh after another Denton RBI and a couple of Flyers errors, and cap of the scoring in the eighth after freshman shortstop Jake Kendro launched his first career home run.
With a hefty lead, the Vols turned to some young arms in the bullpen after Dollander.
Freshman AJ Russell continued to impress in his debut season, sitting down all seven batters that he faced while racking up five strikeouts in 2.1 innings pitched. Russell threw two innings of one-hit ball with three strikeouts in Tuesday’s win over Alabama A&M. Both outings earned high praises from Tennessee’s staff.
“I thought (his outings) were great,” said Elander. “He was kind of a late addition for us about two years ago now and he’s made a great jump. We’re really excited about him.”
Alongside Russell, sophomore right-hander Aaron Combs has also impressed on the mound this season. Combs closed out the ninth inning for the Vols, striking out three straight batters to end the game after earning his first win in Wednesday’s win against Alabama A&M earlier in the week.
With Friday’s win, Tennessee is now on a four-game win streak after dropping the first two games of the season. They will have to go the rest of the weekend without Vitello in the dugout but should be just fine under Elander, especially with the talent differential between Tennessee and Dayton.
Game two between the Vols and the Flyers will be at 2 P.M. EST at Lindsey Nelson Stadium as Chase Burns takes the mound looking to earn his first win of the season. The game will be broadcasted on the SEC Netowrk+.