Merritt Homers Twice as Tennessee Sweeps Morehead State

Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics.

By Joseph Bonanno

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Tennessee completed the weekend sweep after winning the late game of Saturday’s doubleheader over Morehead State 6-3.

Tennessee homered three times while the bullpen held the Eagles scoreless en route to the Vols’ third straight series sweep of the season and the eighth straight regular-season non-conference weekend series sweep.

Transfers Have a Big Day

Transfer outfielder Griffin Merritt showed exactly why Tennessee went after him in the offseason. After homering in the early game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Merritt led the Vols’ offense in the late game. Merritt got Tennessee on the board in the second inning with a two-run home run to dead center off of Morehead State starter John Bakke (L, 1-1). Then in the sixth inning, after the Eagles made it a one-run game, Merritt answered the call again with another two-run home run, this time an opposite-field shot to cushion the Vols’ lead. Merritt ended the day 4-7 at the plate with five total RBIs and three runs scored.

“I think we just had a good scouting report from Coach (Elander) and the rest of the coaching staff on the hitting side,” said Merrit. “Anytime you go up and hit with a good plan you just execute, you know you have good days, and some days you don’t have good days but today I just executed and stuck to my approach.”

Transfer shortstop Maui Ahuna also showed out on Saturday. After his two home runs and five RBIs in Friday night’s win, Ahuna continued his hot streak from the leadoff spot, homering in the late game, a two-run laser over the right field wall in the bottom of the fifth inning. Ahuna and Merritt were responsible for all six Tennessee runs.

Drew Beam’s Quality Start

After junior Chase Dollander’s 11-strikeout night in Friday’s 23-4 win and sophomore Chase Burns’ 13-strikeout performance in Saturday’s 6-0 shutout, sophomore right-hander Drew Beam (W, 3-0) had a lot of work to do in order to keep up with his counterparts in game three. And ‘QB 1’ was up to the challenge.

Beam was one shy of tying his career high with nine strikeouts against Morehead State on Saturday. The sophomore looked locked in early, giving up just one hit in the first three innings. However, Beam ran into some trouble in the middle stretch.

Morehead State scored its first run of the day (between both games) off a solo home run from senior outfielder Chase Vinson in the fifth inning. The Eagles then found some success against Beam in the sixth with a one-out single followed by an RBI double into the left-field corner. Then a bloop single over the head of Christian Moore brought the Eagles within a run, which ended Beam’s day after 5.2 innings. Beam allowed three runs on six hits and walked one batter to go along with his nine strikeouts.

Bullpen Dominates

Tennessee’s bullpen has struggled this past week, giving up five runs in Sunday’s win over Gonzaga and another five in the loss against Boston College on Tuesday. However, the Vols pen got its rhythm back on Saturday, holding Morehead State without a base runner over 5 2/3 innings of work in the doubleheader.

It was right-handers Andrew Lindsey and Camden Sewell (making his debut) holding the Eagles without a hit and striking out three batters in the early game, while the duo of left-hander Kirby Connell and right-hander Seth Halvorsen (S, 2) held them without a hit in the late game. Halvorsen struck out three batters on his way to his second save of the season.

Series Thoughts

Tennessee showcased its ability to put together its dominant pitching and explosive offensive power this weekend. The starters combined for 33 strikeouts in 18 innings of work while only allowing five runs. On the other side of the ball, the Tennessee offense hit 13 home runs against Morehead State’s pitching.

While the pitching staff’s performance is as to be expected, the offensive explosion of home runs was a different change of pace for the Vols. Since Tennessee lost all of its starting offensive production over the offseason, it wasn’t expected that the Vols would look the same offensively as last year’s historic run, however, Tennessee showed this weekend that they are capable of hitting just as well as the 2022 squad.

While the Vols may not be expecting this kind of explosion from their offensive every game, one thing on that side of the ball was made clear this weekend: Maui Ahuna should remain as the leadoff hitter.

Since moving to the leadoff spot on Tuesday, Ahuna has gone 5-13 (.385) with eight RBIs, eight runs scored, five walks, and three home runs in four games after going 4-20, with five RBIs, two walks, two runs, and no home runs in his first five games hitting in the six-hole. And to Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello, he’s the perfect player for that role.

“He can run, first of all. He’s a good athlete. If we need him to bunt, he can do different things that way. Based off of his numbers last year, he’s an improved hitter throughout his entire career including high school. He just keeps getting better and better.” said Vitello. “He’s got good hand-eye coordination … he can hit and run or fight off pitches with two strikes, so he’s got all of the skills to hit anywhere in the top of the order.”

Outside of the usual starting lineup, this weekend showed that Tennessee has a solid group of freshman outfielders. Redshirt freshman Kavares Tears started all three games against Morehead State and picked up five hits and a pair of RBIs along with his first career home run. It seemed like every time he got up to the plate, he found a way to drive the baseball.

“Just proud of him man. Proud. That’s all I can say,” said Merritt following the doubleheader. “That’s a kid that’s a fantastic teammate, works his tail off every day. Guy can hit. He can really hit. It’s tough when you can hit and you’re on the bench and you know you can be out there helping your team.  There was never a complaint, never a bad attitude, nothing. That’s a kid mat6ure beyond his years and everything he had this weekend was so deserving and he’s gonna have a lot more down the road.”

Dylan Dreiling is another freshman that showed out this weekend, picking up three RBIs on three hits and two home runs. Despite this being his debut season, he’s found some meaningful playing time for the Vols.

“He’s been about as consistent from day one as any of our other hitters,” said Vitello. “I know he really likes being in the box. He’s gotten stronger with Coach Q (strength coach Quentin Eberhardt), so when he impacts the baseball he’s got a little more to it. He’s a talented kid and he took advantage of his opportunities and there’s going to be a lot more coming for him.”

This Tennessee team is really good and has a lot of solid pieces to play with, both offensively and out of the bullpen. However, the one area the Vols have struggled is base running. There were four major base running errors on the weekend that cost the Volsn runs or chances to get runs. And with this team not being as home run-heavy as last year, those mistakes are going to be something that will end up costing Tennessee if they don’t get them fixed.

What’s Next

Tennessee will play its final game before its SEC schedule kicks off against Missouri next weekend as the Vols welcome Lipscomb University to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday. The midweek battle is set for 6:30 P.M. EST and can be seen on the SEC Network+.