'Crazy and weird' Vols seek to continue memorable season

·3 min read

Jun. 12—LSU and Tennessee baseball coaches and players haven't made too much of Tennessee's sweeping of the Tigers at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in late March, and that series will be even less relevant Saturday night once the two collide in an NCAA tournament super regional opener.

The Volunteers won those three games by a combined four runs.

"I think that we've changed a lot," LSU junior center fielder Drew Bianco said this week on a Zoom call, "but if you look back at that series, we got walked off twice in one day, which sucked. If a couple of plays go our way, we win that series.

"That was the second weekend of SEC play, so we're not the same team and neither is Tennessee."

Tennessee's sweep of LSU resulted in the Vols posting a 5-1 start to league play and the Tigers stumbling out to 1-5. That 1-5 would become 1-8 after another sweep the following weekend against Vanderbilt, but LSU won four of its last five SEC series — losing only to top-ranked Arkansas — to achieve a more respectable 13-17 conference mark.

The Vols wound up 20-10 in SEC action, their most league victories since 2005 and a gargantuan reason they are the third overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

"I thought we competed hard up there, and I thought we were growing up right before my eyes," retiring LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "Tennessee has an outstanding team, and that's not an easy place to play. The ballpark is a home run hitter's paradise, but they have a tremendous pitching staff, and that's the thing that separates Tennessee.

"The ballpark is small for both teams, but their pitching staff has an earned run average in the low 3s."

Mainieri apologized Friday afternoon for comments made to Baton Rouge's 104.5 FM after the March series, when he labeled Vols fans "nasty" and said Tennessee did not play at times with class.

Tennessee enters Saturday's game (7 p.m. on ESPN2) having hit 92 home runs and with a 3.42 team ERA. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to 67 homers allowed and with the Vols having saddled a 6.34 ERA on opposing pitchers.

The Vols (48-16) punched their super regional ticket last Sunday night with a 3-1 downing of Liberty in the Knoxville Regional, with the Tigers (38-23) not clinching their trip until a 9-8 topping of Oregon early Tuesday morning at the Eugene Regional. Tennessee coach Tony Vitello believes the extra time has allowed his players to gather themselves after an emotional experience and in preparation for another one.

"The comforting feeling for our staff is that this crazy and weird group we have this year has put us in about as many different scenarios as you can envision," Vitello said. "I think that can help set you up for success."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.