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Tennessee baseball: Short on star power, but deep in experience, consistency

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel
Cardboard cutouts of Tennessee baseball players were provided to fans to use for photos before the start of the Tennessee-LSU super regional game on June 13 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. The third-seeded Volunteers face No. 2 Texas on Tuesday in a College World Series elimination game.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee baseball team doesn't have the star power of its College World Series competitors. 

The Vols lack any first-team All-Americans or future top 10 MLB draft picks. No Kumar Rocker. Or Jack Leiter. Not even Ty Madden.

They do, however, have a lineup rich in experience and consistency, one that does not have any apparent cracks or weak points. It will be a boon in the program's campaign for its first national title, which continues Tuesday against Texas in a CWS elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

On Sunday, Tennessee (50-17) was shut out for the third time this season — and the first since April 16 against Vanderbilt — in its 6-0 loss to Virginia. The Vols struck out 13 times in the loss.

Tennessee had entered Sunday having hit 16 homers in five postseason games and scoring 15 runs in its super regional win against LSU. First baseman Luc Lipcius struck out four times in four at-bats. Outfielder Jordan Beck had three strikeouts and outfielder Evan Russell had two. Designated hitter Pete Derkay and Connor Pavolony were the only Vols who did not strike out.

Tennessee players celebrate during the Volunteers' super regional game against LSU on June 13. Tennessee hit 98 home runs this season entering the College World Series, most among all the other teams playing in Omaha.

Michigan baseball can serve as a cautionary tale for teams big on talent but short on meaningful depth. The Wolverines made it to the CWS finals in 2019, but their lack of solid arms past pitching standouts Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry doomed them in a three-game series loss to Vanderbilt. 

If Tennessee has an ace, it's Chad Dallas, who started Sunday's loss. The Vols will go with freshman Blade Tidwell (10-3, 3.57 ERA) — one of just a few first-year players to have an impact this season. Tennessee's pitching staff has a 3.42 ERA, the eighth-best team ERA in the country.

Besides Dallas and Tidwell, the other starter is Will Heflin (3-3, 4.07), but due to Tennessee's NCAA Tournament schedule, he has gone two weeks without making an appearance. Tennessee also can rely on reliever Camden Sewell (4-1, 2.79); he only has three career starts, but in the SEC Tournament against Florida — his most recent — he turned in a career-high six innings and six strikeouts. And Sean Hunley (7-4, 2.92) has a team-high nine saves.

Tennessee's Connor Pavolony, left, is congratulated by Luc Lipcius after Pavolony hit a two-run home run against Florida on April 11.

That depth has extended to the offense. Heading into the CWS, Tennessee had the most home runs among the eight teams in the field, with 98.

Five Vols have double-digit home runs with Beck and Lipcius hitting 15 apiece, while all but one member of the starting lineup has at least five.

Three players have a slugging percentage above .500.

"The guys will play hard and they'll play for each other," Vols head coach Tony Vitello said. "They're probably going to have some fun while they'll do it and we'll see where it leads us. Because they have some skill and because they have a ton of determination, that's left us in the win column a good amount of times."