Dan Fleser: Tennessee Baseball, Softball Cruising

  • Wednesday, April 17, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Tennessee’s Christian Moore created quite a stir on Sunday, smashing a pair of home runs in an 8-4 victory over LSU. The Vols second baseman’s second homer, which drove in three runs and was the game’s decisive hit, sailed into the second deck of the porches behind the left-field fence.

By comparison, teammate Aaron Combs was the competitive equivalent of a librarian. The redshirt junior right-hander came on from the bullpen after LSU’s Tommy White topped Moore’s shot by launching a homer that seemingly went into orbit. The ball might’ve buzzed the International Space Station before descending back to Earth. But before the Tigers could be stirred by White’s feat, they were hushed by Combs’ relief, which featured three strikeouts.

“Combs was down there all weekend and we made him wait until the last go of it and he was ready to rock and roll, throw his stuff up there and see what happens,” UT coach Tony Vitello said. “And it worked out well for him.”

The yin and yang of Moore and Combs reflected the crucial balance No. 4 Tennessee (31-6, 10-5 SEC) is trying to achieve as it moves through SEC play. Moore and the rest of UT’s bomb squad lead the nation in homers with 101. However, their impact is dependent upon Combs and Tennessee’s pitchers complementing them by either minimizing or disabling the opposition’s ordnance.

As the third pitcher utilized in relief of starter Zander Sechrist. Combs’ two scoreless innings earned him his first career save. His work embodied Vitello’s marching orders going forward.

“We have to keep on adding attributes that help us win,” he said.

Tennessee’s softball team, which leads the SEC by 1.5 games, is trying to achieve their own version of this equilibrium. Its quest reflects the difference between the two sports. The Lady Vols (32-7, 12-3) have hit 65 home runs and rank fifth nationally with a per-game average of 1.64. Zaida Puni, who hit two in Sunday’s victory at Mississippi State, leads the team with 10. The pitching support, meanwhile, is coming almost exclusively from starters Karlyn Pickens and Payton Gottshall, who have logged 86.5 percent of the team’s innings to date.

Pickens and Gottshall have 15 victories apiece. Pickens, who already has logged 30 more innings than her freshman season last year, has the most starts with 19. Gottshall, who pitched 14 innings in a game while at Bowling Green, leads the team with 10 relief appearances. She replaced Pickens on Sunday and earned the pitching victory with 3.2 innings of work.

Lady Vols coach Karen Weekly said the subject of performance maintenance was broached recently with both pitchers.

“OK, these next eight weeks, what are all of the things each of you can be doing from a sleep standpoint, a nutrition standpoint, a hydration standpoint,” Weekly said, “everything in order to make sure that you have the stamina you want to have when we get into postseason play.”

Weekly said both pitchers were all ears about taking care of themselves and their pitching arms.

“They were excited about the idea of having a specific plan for each of them,” Weekly said.

While the Lady Vols have their stars aligned, Vitello will continue searching his pitching ranks for a few more Volunteers.

“I think we feel more comfortable about the guys we’ve been using,” he said. “We’re eager to use a couple of guys that we haven’t then also I think we feel more comfortable about maybe who belongs where and how we can put these guys in a position to succeed.”

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a member of the Tennessee Sportswriters and the U.S. Basketball Writers Halls of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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