By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 11 Tennessee’s streak of three straight series wins over No. 3 Florida came to an end on Friday night as the Vols dropped game two and the series in a 9-3 loss to the Gators.
Just one night after striking out a program-high 18 times, Tennessee’s offense once again stayed dormant as the Vols (21-10, 4-7 SEC) struck out 14 times in its game-two loss. All nine starters struck out at least once and at one point, six straight Vols struck out between the fourth and fifth innings.
Florida (27-5, 9-2 SEC) starter Hurston Waldrep (W, 5-1) picked up right where junior Brandon Sproat left off on Thursday night, allowing five hits and three runs in seven innings of work. Waldrep struck out nine batters while only issuing two walks and held the Vols’ offense quiet for the second straight game. While 32 strikeouts in the first two games is not an encouraging number, it’s the lack of competitive at-bats that has been the most frustrating part of the series for Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello.
“You’re in the men’s league so strikeout numbers are going to be high. I don’t give a rip about that number in particular. The number that’s too high is the non-competitive at-bats and the non-competitive last pitch of the at-bat,” said Vitello. “Get in the box and compete. Locking up with two strikes ain’t an option and we’ve done that.”
The only life Tennessee’s offense found came in the second inning as senior infielder Zane Denton hit a two-run, line-drive home run to right field to put the Vols on the board. Tennessee got another run in the eighth thanks to a pinch-hit RBI from senior Griffin Merritt, who hasn’t seen much action since being taken out of the starting lineup in game two against LSU. Merritt ended a 0-20 slump with his RBI single against the Gators.
While Tennessee’s offense couldn’t get much of anything going, the Gators’ offense jumped on Tennessee early. Sophomore starter Chase Burns (L, 2-3) ran into trouble in the first after loading the bases with one out before walking in a run and giving up a two-run ground-rule double. The Gators’ shortstop Josh Rivera followed that up in the second inning with a two-run home run to right field with two outs to give the Gators a 5-0 lead through the first two innings.
But Florida answered back quickly as Wyatt Langford and Jac Caglianone hit back-to-back solo home runs in the fourth inning, forcing Burns out of the game. The Tennessee sophomore ended his day after 3 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs on six hits while walking four and striking out three in his third loss of the season.
Burns’ season ERA was boosted up to 6.10 after yet another rocky start. The sophomore gave up 18 earned runs in all of SEC play during the 2022 season and is up to 23 through four SEC starts this year as Burns continues to try and refind the success he saw just a year ago.
“Stay true to your roots,” said Vitello on what Burns needs to do to put the last few weeks behind him. “A lot of times when guys have success and then it gets derailed at some point, whether it be during their college career or a guy you watch in the big leagues, there are extra problems that are created. It’s almost a ‘try to trim the fat’ kind of thing and get back to who you are and what got you in that position that you’re in.”
While Burns and the rest of the Tennessee starters try and figure out their struggles, the Vols’ bullpen showed a ton of success against a really good Florida lineup. The trio of Andrew Lindsey, Bryce Jenkins, and Jake Fitzgibbons held the Gators scoreless over the final 4 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and retiring the final 12 Florida batters in order. Jenkins, a junior from Knoxville, showed out in particular, retiring all six batters he faced while striking out five. It was a performance that shined a little bit of light on what was overall a bad day of baseball for the Vols.
“It was awesome,” said Vitello. “We anticipated that he (Jenkins) would serve as a major factor for us kind of like he’s done this weekend. I mean you come in and get (Josh) Rivera out and then on top of it he does what he did tonight, it’s really, really good. I think he just needed to get his cleats in the ground and get some repetitions at the Division I level to feel comfortable. Kinda had that smooth, calm approach … and obviously, the stuff was good enough to do a lot of things.”
The Vols’ series loss to the Gators marks the second straight series loss in a row, the first time the Vols have lost back-to-back series since 2019 when Tennessee dropped back-to-back series to Arkansas (sweep) and Missouri (lost two out of three). It was also the first home series loss since Arkansas took two out of three against Tennessee in 2021.
Tennessee will try to bounce back and salvage a game against Florida on Saturday, with first pitch scheduled for 2:00 P.M. EST. The game is set to be broadcasted on ESPN2. The Vols are set to start sophomore right-hander Drew Beam (3-1, 2.51 ERA) to face off against Florida’s two-way phenom, sophomore left-hander Jac Caglianone (3-0, 4.18 ERA).