By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Tennessee’s 2023 season didn’t get off to the best start as the Volunteers dropped to 1-2 after the opening weekend road trip to Arizona. However, Tennessee returned home to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday and flexed their top-three ranking in a 10-0 win over Alabama A&M.
Tennessee’s (2-2) top-third of the lineup showed off against the Bulldogs (3-1). The trio of sophomores Jared Dickey, Christian Moore, and Blake Burke went a combined 6-7 with five RBIs and six runs scored. Those six hits featured two doubles and two multi-run home runs and accounted for nearly two-thirds of Tennessee’s total hits on the night. It was more success than the trio saw in the desert and head coach Tony Vitello attributes it to his leadoff hitter.
“Dickey is such a high-energy guy and you see it in everything he does,” said Vitello. “However, I think it probably hurt him a little bit last weekend and tonight he had a little bit more calm to him. When your leadoff guy gets on base…and ignites some things, then you’ve got other guys behind him in a position to do damage.”
As for Dickey, he understood exactly what the difference was in Tuesday’s win.
“In Arizona, I was just trying to do too much,” the sophomore utility player said. “Coming out as a leader this year, it affected me in those first few games, but being back here and being around the crowd and knowing my teammates had my back really helped a lot.”
Dickey’s 3-3 night at the plate definitely helped spark some life into Tennessee’s offense. Burke was able to open up the scoring in the third inning with his second home run of the season, a three-run blast to center field. Tennessee then added two more runs in the fifth thanks to some small-ball play from Burke, Dickey, and Zane Denton. Then in the sixth inning, Dickey smashed his first home run of the season off of the right-field fence for a two-run blast before an RBI double from Ethan Payne added another.
Tennessee was able to work a lot of its depth into its win on Tuesday, giving 17 batters a chance at the plate against the Bulldogs. Several guys made the most of their opportunities, such as redshirt freshman Kavares Tears hitting a double and freshman Dylan Dreiling hitting a triple in their home debuts. However, it was sophomore catcher Ryan Miller who made the biggest splash, hitting a two-run walk-off home run to right field in his first collegiate at-bat to trigger the 10-run mercy rule and give the Vols the win.
The success from that many guys along with how early in the season it is leaves a tough challenge for Vitello with figuring out the lineup for the future.
“It’s difficult just to write the lineup up there,” Vitello said. “We now have 14 games remaining before SEC play and they’re all at home so we need to leave no stone left unturned, with this team more than any.”
The Vols’ pitching staff also flexed its muscle, earning its second shutout in a row. Junior right-hander Hollis Fanning got the start, going two innings of one-hit ball. Sophomore Jake Fitzgibbons earned his first win of the season after throwing two innings and collecting four strikeouts, while freshman AJ Russell and JUCO transfer Jacob Bimbi closed the game out combining for seven punchouts of their own.
With another shutout and 12 combined strikeouts, the Vols’ young arms impressed in the home opener, especially freshman AJ Russell.
“I think we’ve known from the start we were gonna have a really impressive bullpen and all of our arms are gonna be really good,” said Dickey. “I was really impressed with AJ Russell and his composure on the mound and his ability to pound the strike zone. It’s really cool to see all those guys getting the success they deserve.”
For Vitello it was much of the same.
“I don’t say it out loud, but I’m feeling it internally when a guy’s got the ball in his hands how I’m feeling, and (AJ Russell) made me feel comfortable,” Vitello said. “He made me feel good to wear this uniform and he’s got a bright, bright future.”
Tennessee challenged itself in the opening weekend by taking on a couple of tough teams in Arizona. However, getting back home seemed to be good for them as both the offensive and defensive aspects of their game fell back into a smooth rhythm. Tuesday marks the start of 15 straight home games for the Vols and the first of a two-game series with the Bulldogs.
Tennessee and Alabama A&M will be back in action on Wednesday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium at 4:30 PM EST.