By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Tennessee won its eighth straight game after an 8-2 win over Charleston Southern on Wednesday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Vols (8-2) were led by yet another dominant effort from the pitching staff and another quick start on offense.
Freshman RHP AJ Russell made his first career start against the Buccaneers (3-6) on Wednesday night. Russell was extremely efficient on the mound, tossing two scoreless innings without allowing a hit and striking out two batters in just 22 total pitches, 15 of which were strikes. The freshman has not allowed a run in over six innings of action this season and only has given up one hit while striking out 10 as he continues to grow the confidence Tony Vitello has in him.
“He’s a confident kid, but there’s no way he’s more confident in himself than the coaching staff is,” said Vitello. “We believe in him a lot. He’s just knocking on the door of what he can do in the long run… but he’s exciting.”
The rest of Tennessee’s staff stayed just as dominant out of the bullpen. Sophomore LHP Jake Fitzgibbons (W, 2-0) went two innings of one-hit ball while picking up two strikeouts and the win. Junior RHP Andrew Lindsey struck out the side in his one inning of work and Zach Joyce worked around a leadoff single to pick up two strikeouts of his own.
Tennessee ran into some trouble in the seventh and eighth innings giving up a run in each before closing down things to end the game. The Vols used eight different arms and ended the game with 13 total strikeouts while only giving up one walk and five hits to the Buccaneers. Tony Vitello continues to display Tennessee’s depth out of the bullpen, showing off as many arms as he can in the eight games until Tennessee takes on Missouri to begin the SEC schedule.
“We’re just searching for ways to get guys out there,” said Vitell0. “It’s to make sure that we leave no stone left unturned going into conference play.”
Offensively, Tennessee was clicking early. Four straight hits to open the game led to three runs thanks to Blake Burke’s two-RBI single and a Griffin Merritt sacrifice fly. The Vols added two more runs in the second inning after Christian Moore had an RBI groundout and Zane Denton brought home Jared Dickey with an RBI single.
Burke blasted his sixth home run of the year (a team-high) to add two more runs to Tennessee’s lead in the sixth and Maui Ahuna’s first RBI as a Vol added another run in the seventh to cap off the scoring.
It was a well-balanced attack from the Volunteer offense as every starter recorded a hit. Dickey, Burke, and Denton led the way getting two hits a piece, while Burke’s four RBIs gave him nine for the series and added to his team-high 16 on the season. Burke has been Tennessee’s most productive hitter so far and has shown a ton of promise despite just being in his sophomore season.
“Certain hitters kind of sense an opportunity that ‘I can get an RBI here,'” said Vitello. “I think Blake is a proven and experienced hitter. If you were with him in the dugout last year, you kind of had a vibe from him of how much pride he had in his work, how much he wanted to win, and good of a teammate he is. You mix all that up together and you know he’s gonna be a really good player.”
Tennessee has now reached the 10-game mark in the young 2023 season. While the lineup is nowhere near what it will be by the end of the year, Vitello has definitely seen enough from several guys. Dickey continues to be a dangerous and effective leadoff guy, batting .359 on the year with 14 hits. Burke continues to show he’s one of the best hitters in the country by batting .417 with a 1.434 OPS.
As for the pitching staff, they continued where the 2022 team left off, leading the country with 1.27 ERA. The Vols have also collected 117 strikeouts in just 10 games in an impressive start to the season spearheaded by ‘The Big Three’ that is Chase Dollander, Chase Burns, and Drew Beam.
The Vols will look to continue their win streak as Gonzaga makes the trip to Knoxville for a three-game series this weekend. Game one is set for Friday night with the first pitch at 6:30 P.M. EST. Junior RHP Chase Dollander (1-1, 3.48 ERA) is set to start on the mound for the Vols while the Zags are set to start junior RHP Owen Wild (0-1, 3.97 ERA).