The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

VandyBoys Series Preview: Taking on Tennessee

On the heels of a dreadful midweek performance, the Commodores will head to Knoxville this weekend to take on the reeling Tennessee Volunteers in one of the SEC’s biggest rivalries.
Lindsey Jorda
Vanderbilt dugout watching the game against South Carolina, as photographed on April 16, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Lindsey Jorda).

Last weekend’s series win over No. 6 South Carolina was a huge boost to No. 4 Vanderbilt’s resume, which now consists of a 13-2 SEC record to go along with nine wins over ranked opponents. The Commodores’ most recent matchup, which resulted in a 10-2 loss to Indiana State, was less flattering, but there’s no time for head coach Tim Corbin and co. to dwell on that performance. This weekend will pose another difficult task when the VandyBoys head to Knoxville for a three-game series between two of college baseball’s biggest rivals. 

That being said, this year’s matchup between Vanderbilt and Tennessee seems to have significantly less hype surrounding it than in past years. 

One possible cause is the Volunteers’ disappointing start to conference play. After going 15-3 over the first few weeks of the season, Tennessee opened their SEC schedule by getting swept by Missouri. They followed that up by taking all three games against Texas A&M but have since lost series to LSU, Florida and Arkansas, placing them sixth in SEC East with a 5-10 conference record.

With eight games separating the Commodores and Volunteers in the standings, this weekend’s series is a far cry from the matchup we saw a year ago, when both entered as consensus top-five teams. Still, a lot is at stake for the VandyBoys as they head to Lindsey Nelson Stadium. A series win for Tennessee would go a long way towards securing their tournament hopes, while leaving Knoxville with multiple victories could provide Vanderbilt some much-needed breathing room in the race for the SEC East title.

If the Volunteers pull off the upset, it will be behind a very different lineup than the one that swept Vanderbilt last season. Just one of the nine position players who started multiple games for Tennessee in that series is still on the roster.

That one player is sophomore Christian Moore, who remains one of Tony Vitello’s biggest assets at the plate. The second baseman has started all but three games this season while slashing .300/.463/.518 with six home runs and 26 RBIs. 

Other returners who saw significant playing time last season include first baseman Blake Burke and outfielder Jared Dickey, both of whom have taken on larger roles in the wake of last season’s departures. Burke leads the team in batting average (.324), home runs (13), and OPS (1.069), while Dickey has scored more runs than anyone on the roster (37) in addition to having the second most hits (41) and total bases (70). 

Tennessee also brought in a number of new faces this offseason who have helped to fill some of the voids in the lineup. Outfielder Griffin Merritt, who led the AAC in home runs at Cincinnati last season, has become one of the team’s leading power threats, trailing only Burke with ten long balls and a .619 slugging percentage. In addition, third baseman Zane Denton and shortstop Maui Ahuna have become an exciting duo on the left side of the infield, combining for 27 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs in just over 200 at-bats since coming over from Alabama and Kansas respectively. 

While this lineup may not be as intimidating as the one led by Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck and Trey Lipscomb last year, it still has plenty of capable hitters who could cause problems for Vanderbilt’s short-handed rotation. Carter Holton and Devin Futrell should be good to go in their respective Friday and Sunday starter roles, but Hunter Owen’s availability is up in the air, leaving the Saturday starter spot open. Bryce Cunningham seems like the most likely name to fill it, but Patrick Reilly and Greysen Carter may also receive consideration after shutting down South Carolina last Saturday. 

Tennessee, on the other hand, will be using many of the same arms that shut Vanderbilt down last season. Chase Dollander and Drew Beam, who allowed just two earned runs in 17 combined innings during their starts in Nashville, will start on Saturday and Sunday respectively. While they have both regressed to the mean compared to last year, Beam’s solid 3.73 earned-run average (ERA) and Dollander’s ridiculous 15.46 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) illustrate that they are still two of the SEC’s toughest pitchers. 

Regular Saturday starter Chase Burns, who was equally as lethal as Dollander and Beam in 2022, has struggled throughout conference play and lost his role in the starting rotation last weekend. Assuming his spot and starting on Friday is junior Andrew Lindsey, who has pitched to a 2.49 ERA while holding opponents to a .176 batting average between one start and 12 relief appearances. 

Right-handers AJ Rusell, Seth Halvorsen and Aaron Combs, as well as left-hander Zander Sechrist, are likely to be Vitello’s top choices out of the bullpen once his starters run out of steam. Each of them has posted a sub-3.30 ERA with at least 14 innings of work. While they all made appearances in Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee Tech, it’s hard to imagine the Volunteers making it through the weekend without them. 

Similar to South Carolina, Tennessee’s rotation is right-hander heavy, so Vanderbilt’s left-handed hitters should have the upper hand throughout the weekend. Against the Gamecocks, Enrique Bradfield Jr., RJ Schreck, Parker Noland and Jonathan Vastine combined to score 12 of the team’s 20 runs while recording 9 of the team’s 17 RBIs. While the offense would benefit from more hits from the right-handed hitters, similar production from these four would bode well for the Commodores’ chances at a series win. 

Given the history and tension between these two teams, a series win in Knoxville would be a welcome sight for Vanderbilt fans everywhere. It won’t be an easy task, but Corbin’s bunch has managed to overcome just about every challenge thrown at them thus far. Tune in Friday at 5 p.m. CDT to see if they can do it once again in what should be a thrilling weekend of baseball. 

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About the Contributors
Luke Rollfinke
Luke Rollfinke, Senior Staff Writer
Luke Rollfinke ('25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science planning to major in mathematics with a minor in communications. Luke loves all things sports, so when he's not writing for The Hustler, he's probably either playing for a club or intramural Vanderbilt sports team. You can reach him at [email protected].
Lindsey Jorda
Lindsey Jorda, Former Social Media Director
Lindsey Jorda (‘23) is double majoring in neuroscience and psychology in the College of Arts and Science. When not working for The Hustler, she loves reading, listening to music, watching movies and playing with her dog. She can be reached at [email protected].
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