By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 11 Tennessee started conference play off on a bad note, getting swept by an unranked Missouri team on the road.
The Vols (17-6, 1-3 SEC) responded well on Friday night as they hosted No. 21 Texas A&M in their first SEC home matchup of the season, taking off to a big 10-4 win over the Aggies in game one of the three-game series.
Tennessee starting pitcher Chase Dollander’s first-inning struggles shown in the loss to Missouri continued against the Aggies (15-7, 1-3 SEC). A pair of leadoff walks and a pair of pitch-clock violations greeted the right-hander before A&M got on the board with an RBI single from Jack Moss. Dollander then balked in another run to give the Aggies an early 2-0 lead. With sophomore Jared Dickey making his first start of the season at catcher, some miscommunication led to the early struggles.
“Honestly I’m going to take the blame for that,” said Dickey. “I had the Pitch Com on and so did all the infielders and (Dollander) didn’t because he didn’t want to use it and I was supposed to be given signs, and to be honest with you, I was just so sped up that I completely forgot. So that was on me and I’ll take full responsibility for it.”
Tennessee’s batteries have been using Pitch Com bracelets all season long to help call games behind the plate. However, tonight was the first time that Dollander didn’t use the system that tells him what to throw, which led to what head coach Tony Vitello said led to some “miscommunication” and “awkward plays” in the first inning.
Despite the issue, unlike in the series against Missouri, Tennessee’s offense provided plenty of answers after its opponent’s early strike. Junior shortstop Maui Ahuna led things off with a triple before Christian Moore scored him with an RBI groundout. Blake Burke got on after being hit by a pitch and Zane Denton walked before Jared Dickey shot a single down the third base line to drive in another run.
With two runners on, redshirt freshman Kavares Tears drove a bases-clearing double to the right-center wall to give Tennessee its first lead of the game. The Vols weren’t done there, as sophomore outfielder Hunter Ensley brought home Tears with an RBI double of his own to cap off Tennessee’s five-run first inning.
The Aggies earned a run back in the second inning, but once again, Tennessee’s offense answered back. Ahuna led off with a double before Moore drove him in for his second RBI of the day. Then Denton drove in Moore with an RBI single to the left side to extend Tennessee’s lead to four runs. With the offense clicking behind him, Dollander was able to settle down and find his rhythm on the mound.
“It definitely boosts any pitcher’s confidence when the hitters are hitting. It kind of gives you the most confidence in order to just execute the pitches you need to and throw strikes,” said Dollander. “I feel like what I did pretty well tonight was (I) just kept battling and kept battling and finally something clicked and I figured it out.”
Tenessee’s offense gave Dollander plenty of room to figure things out. The future first-round pick held the Aggies to just two baserunners and no runs over his final four innings of work. Outside of a hit batter and a third-inning single, Dollander completely shut down the A&M hitters, finishing his day with 6 2/3 innings pitched, allowing three hits, three runs, walking two, and striking out eight on 103 pitches. It was a solid outing and an impressive rebound from his first-inning struggles.
Tennessee rebounded about as well as they could in Friday night’s win over the Aggies. The Vols put up 10 runs on 10 hits in the victory after being outscored by Missouri 23-6 last weekend where they had just 10 hits all series. Despite the early SEC struggles, Tennessee’s confidence never wavered.
“The answer is no. To be honest with you, it’s why we didn’t meet after the game Sunday. We had talked enough. Everybody saw what happened on the field,” said Vitello on whether or not the Vols felt any urgency after losing their first three SEC games of the season. “(We) get back here and regroup…and on Tuesday we needed a good effort and a team win and I think we did that. I don’t think we ever got to that point.”
Now that they have had a taste of winning in the SEC, the Vols will have another chance to add to that feeling as they take on the Aggies for game two of the series on Saturday with the first pitch scheduled for noon, EST. Tennessee will send out sophomore RHP Chase Burns (2-1, 3.41 ERA) to face Texas A&M’s sophomore LHP Troy Wansing (2-1, 2.42 ERA). The game will be broadcasted on ESPN 2.