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#2 Vanderbilt Looks to Rebound in Knoxville Against In-State Rival, #9 Tennessee

by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)

After their first series loss of the year against Georgia, Vanderbilt (26-5, 9-3 SEC) does not have any time to regroup as they head to Knoxville to take on a red hot Tennessee (28-6, 9-3 SEC) team that has tied the Commodores for first place in the SEC East. The Georgia series was very uncharacteristic for Tim Corbin’s team, giving up 25 runs in three games. The ninth-ranked Volunteers, on the other hand, are coming in with a huge series win after taking two games from Florida in Knoxville.

Even though the Bulldogs' bats erupted in Nashville, the Vanderbilt pitching staff is still ranked sixth in the country with a 2.75 ERA and have two of the most electric players in the nation. Entering the weekend, Kumar Rocker had given up just four earned runs on the season and was a perfect 7-0, but that quickly changed as Georgia put up six runs on him, giving Rocker his first loss of the season. Even so, Rocker is now 7-1 with a 1.88 ERA for the season. Jack Leiter enters the series against Tennessee with a 7-0 record, an ERA of 0.55, and has 84 strikeouts compared to 18 walks.

The only thorn to the Vanderbilt pitching staff this season has been the Sunday starter. It is a role that Thomas Schultz held until Coach Corbin made the decision to start Patrick Reilly last weekend, his first start of his career. Reilly tossed three innings, giving up three runs on three hits. Despite its Sunday woes, the Vanderbilt pitching staff is ranked second in the country in hits allowed per game with 5.76, so the Volunteers will need to take advantage of every opportunity they get.

At the plate, Commodores are led by Dominic Keegan, who was recently named to the Golden Spikes Midseason Watch List (along with Leiter and Rocker). Keegan is batting .391 with six home runs and 30 RBI, all stats that he leads the team in. He is one of six Vanderbilt players that is batting above .300, with eight Commodores above the .280 mark. This is a lineup that does not have many weaknesses and just about any batter can beat you. They are 14th in the country with 43 home runs, ranked number one in doubles with 72, and first in triples with 16. The Tennessee pitching staff will need to be very careful how they approach this Vanderbilt offense; they can score runs in a hurry and will put a lot of pressure on the Volunteers pitchers.

Tennessee has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, entering the year at #32, climbing all the way up to #9. The Volunteers recipe has been pretty simple; throw strikes and play defense, something Coach Vitello has molded his teams around after coaching under Jim Schlossnagle and Dave Van Horn. He has the Volunteers ranked 22nd in the country in fielding percentage, committing just 28 errors in 34 games and are ranked 25th with a 3.57 ERA. The pitching staff has been very consistent this season, starting Chad Dallas, Will Heflin, and freshman flamethrower Blade Tidwell the majority of the season. These three have combined for an 11-2 record and have the potential to give Vanderbilt some fits at the plate.

The Volunteers offense is going to have their work cut out for them this weekend against one of the best pitching staffs in the country. Tennessee is batting .273 as a team, which ranks them just inside the top 100 teams in the country, and they have just two hitters above .300, Liam Spence and Jake Rucker. That being said, this team is ninth in the country in runs, due to their patience at the plate, as they draw walks more than any other team in the nation. With their offensive approach, they will force the Vanderbilt pitching staff to throw strikes early and often. The Volunteers are going to try to get to the bullpen as soon as possible by elevating the pitch counts of Rocker and Leiter.

Matt’s Prediction: This is going to be a really good series with two high quality, Omaha potential opponents. The Volunteers really have to stick to their game plan and remain disciplined against a pitching staff that is going to be hungry, especially against their in-state rival. I want to pick Tennessee, but my gut says Vandy bounces back and takes the series in Knoxville.


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