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By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 23 Tennessee brought the fireworks to Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Friday night, hitting five home runs in a 10-6 win to take the series opener over No. 17 Kentucky.
Following Christian Moore’s 440-foot home run to open the scoring in the second inning, the Vols (34-16, 13-12 SEC) hit three home runs in a seven-run second inning that gave Tennessee an early advantage over the Wildcats (34-14, 14-11 SEC).
Maui Ahuna walked to leadoff the inning before junior center fielder Hunter Ensley launched a 439-foot home run over the left field porches to give Tennessee the lead. Sophomore utility man Jared Dickey made it back-to-back for the Vols with a solo shot off the scoreboard to extend the lead. Blake Burke and Moore reached base to put two runners on base, forcing the Wildcats to make a change away from starter Travis Smith (L, 4-2) after just two innings.
Kentucky brought in left-hander Jackson Nove, who was greeted by a three-run home run from Vols’ designated hitter Griffin Merritt to extend Tennessee’s lead before Cal Stark capped off the inning with an RBI double.
“I think Maui (Ahuna) walked and that is huge to go get a leadoff guy on base. I think it is a little thing that gets overlooked a lot. But Maui got on base and Hunter (Ensley) destroys that ball to left, (Jared) Dickey gets into one. We got guys on base,” Merritt said. “I think for us an offense, it is important for us to have as many people as we can on so when we do run into some — because we will — it is nice when they are not solo homers.”
Tennessee was held scoreless for a pair of innings before lighting the fireworks again in the sixth. Merritt hit his second home run of the day, a two-run opposite-field shot to reextend the Vols’ lead. Dickey led the offensive strike, going 3-for-5 with a home run. Moore went 2-for-3 with a home run and a pair of walks while Merritt and Denton both had two hits apiece.
Dickey, a sophomore out of Mount Juliet, Tenn., has become the most consistent bat on Tennessee’s offense. Out of the starters, Dickey leads the team in batting average, hitting a stellar .349 with 11 home runs. The Vols’ utility man has been the centerpiece of the Tennessee offense.
“He’s a competitive, good baserunner and he’s a hitter. That’s why we recruited him, that’s what he is and that’s why he’ll get drafted,” Vols’ head coach Tony Vitello said. “He has good ability to hit, and like Andrew Lindsey and like our team, he has kind of settled in to play ball and not worry about all this other riff-raff. I’m in on this at-bat right, and he’s pretty talented when he does that.”
The Vols’ starter Andrew Lindsey (W, 1-2) shoved against the Wildcats, tossing six and two-thirds innings while only surrendering three runs on five hits. The first Kentucky run came in the third inning after a throwing error by Lindsey, who sailed a throw over Denton’s head at third base trying to catch a Kentucky baserunner in a run down. The second came off a Devin Burkes solo shot in the fifth inning and the third came on an RBI double in the seventh.
The performance led to Lindsey’s first win of the season, a surprising stat considering the 6-foot-3 right-hander’s effectiveness since taking over as Tennessee’s game-one starter during the Arkansas series on April 14. In five starts since the move, Lindsey is 1-1 with a 3.81 ERA and a 1.423 WHIP and has collected 23 of his 49 strikeouts, including a 10-strikeout performance against a top-10 Vanderbilt team.
“Each time, kind of when things get a little gritty, not doing The Griddy, but when it requires some grit,” Vitello said on Lindsey’s growth since becoming a starter. “He’s a guy with a good track record, and I know our guys weren’t big fans of having to face him in scrimmages. So, his stuff has been good. He’s been really consistent for us. But also like our entire team, as it gets a little more challenging and we get closer to summertime, he seems to be the best version of himself.”
Things got interesting in the ninth inning as Kentucky managed to plate three on a sac fly and a two-run home run. However, Vitello turned to sophomore Hollis Fanning, who shut the door and helped the Vols finish out the win over the Wildcats.
For Tennessee, winning against a Kentucky team that plays small ball as well as they do is a major challenge. The Wildcats lead the SEC in sacrifice bunts and stolen bases, an area the Vols have struggled with this season. However, thanks to Stark’s efforts behind the plate, Tennessee was able to minimize the Wildcats’ chaos.
“It was outstanding. If you just go off the stat sheet, we erase three of their baserunners and obviously, he had a big part of that, and you win by, you can kind of start to come up with all sorts of theories,” Vitello said. “But the biggest thing he does is just come with energy, preparation, communication is a really important part of his game.”
Tennessee will look to take the series from the Wildcats on Saturday, with game two scheduled for noon EST on the SEC Network. The Vols are set to send out junior right-hander Chase Dollander (5-4, 4.24 ERA) to face off against the Wildcats’ left-hander Tyler Bosma (4-3, 5.04 ERA). With a win, the Vols can even their record with Kentucky and move into the top-four of the SEC East standings.