They’ve got pitching. They’ve got power. They’ve got swag.
If anyone thought Tennessee baseball would take a step back on the diamond this season, the Volunteers have proven otherwise in resounding fashion.
Coming off a series sweep of Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee has solidified its status as the best team in the country.
The Volunteers earned that No. 1 designation in multiple polls two weeks ago for the first time in program history. Their performance last weekend against their in-state rival only enhanced the belief.
Tennessee (27-1) decisively swept Vanderbilt to extend a program-best winning streak to 19 straight games and improve to 9-0 in SEC play. It’s the best SEC start in program history – topping an 8-0 start by the Vols in 1966 – and the second-best start of any SEC team since the conference expanded in 1992 (Florida started 10-0 in 1994).
Two-time NCAA national champion Vandy dropped from No. 10 in the rankings to 16th with the loss.
“My first instinct is just what it says about this team. It’s a very diversified team,” UT head coach Tony Vitello says. “... And that’s been a work in progress for the last few years. I feel like we had it last year. But this year maybe they’ve got it a little bit better.”
The Vols lost a lot of talent from last season’s College World Series team, but haven’t missed a beat. They re-stocked the pitching rotation with young arms that have been dominant.
Freshmen Drew Beam and Chase Burns and sophomore Chase Dollander have anchored the starting rotation. Not only have they compensated for the early injuries to Blade Tidwell and Seth Halvorsen, they have vaulted to among the nation’s best.
Beam is 6-0 with a 0.88 ERA in 41.0 innings pitched. Burns is 6-0 with a 1.15 ERA in 39.0 IP and Dollander is 5-0 with a 2.58 ERA in 38.1 IP.
Tennessee entered the week leading the nation in earned run average with a collective 1.80 in 250.0 IP.
In securing the series sweep over Vandy, Beam threw the first complete-game shutout by a UT pitcher since Garrett Stallings in 2019.
The Murfreesboro native allowed just two hits, faced one batter over the minimum and did not allow a Vanderbilt runner to advance past first base.
Beam has pitched at least 7.1 innings in each of his three SEC starts this season and allowed only six hits and one run combined.
“My goal going into the year was just to be a reliever, come in and do my part,” says Beam, who earned SEC Pitcher of the Week and Freshman of the Week honors for his performance in Nashville. “We had some injuries and stuff. Some shoes needed to be filled. I think I have stepped up. Coach gave me the opportunity and I ran with it.”
Redshirt junior pitcher Ben Joyce has set social media afire with his flaming fastball. Joyce threw a pitch earlier this season that registered 104.1 mph on the radar gun, topping the speed of any pitches thrown in Major League Baseball last year.
Offensively, Tennessee entered the week leading the nation in home runs (69) and home runs per game (2.46). The Vols were second in on-base percentage (.443), third in runs scored (293), and fourth in batting average (.325).
Junior Drew Gilbert leads Tennessee with a .452 average while driving in 30 runs. Senior Trey Lipscomb has 11 home runs, eight doubles and 48 RBIs.
Thirteen UT players have hit at least two home runs this season, and it’s given the Vols plenty of chances to showcase their celebrations. Along with the Daddy hat that debuted last season, the Vols adorn players that go yard with a cheetah print fur coat.
The Vanderbilt series started with some home run controversy after UT’s Jordan Beck hit a solo shot in the first inning. But Beck’s home run was taken off the board after it was ruled he used an illegal bat. The bat was missing an inspection sticker from that night. The sticker on the bat was from a midweek game.
The Vols didn’t let the ruling throw them off stride. They used it for more motivational fuel and silenced a crowd that grew less and less hostile as the weekend proceeded.
“You’re going to get hate everywhere,” Beck points out. “It’s kind of just what you make of it. Honestly, it kind of fires me up a little bit when I hear stuff like that, so it’s good for me.”
The Vols return to friendlier confines for the next two weekends when they host Missouri and Alabama at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The buzz they began generating last season has reached a fever pitch around Knoxville. Last week’s midweek game against Western Carolina was sold out with 4,607 in attendance, making it the largest attendance for a Vols midweek game in school history and the fourth-largest for any Tennessee home game.
The UT administration is working to upgrade the home field experience. The UTK budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year includes $56.8 million toward Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.
Although it would have been reasonable for Tennessee to need at least a few months to emerge as a postseason contender again, the Vols have expedited the process this season.
It’s the latest sign of a program evolving into a college baseball juggernaut.
“As long as Coach Vitello is here, there will be no such thing as complacency,” Gilbert says. “A lot of guys on our team are the same way. We’re trying to get better every single day. Outside of the result, there’s always room for improvement, no matter what.”