Friday – Steven Gruver continued his impressive performance this season and gave the Vols everything it took to begin the long weekend on the right foot. Gruver was handed a 3-0 lead by the end of the second inning, thanks to a 2-run rally that followed a sac fly for an RBI by Chris Fritts, and that was all he needed. He won his first career complete game, saved the bullpen for Saturday and Sunday and solidified his role as the team's No. 1 starter. 4-2, Tennessee
Saturday (game one) – Matt Duffy hit for the cycle Wednesday against New Orleans. There's no topping that, is there? Maybe not, but he got a nice consolation prize with a seventh-inning grand slam that highlighted the Vols' offensive domination of the Jaspers. Throw in a solid start from Drew Steckenrider, who notched a career high innings pitched and his first career victory, and Tennessee trotted to an easy victory against the Jaspers. 11-5, Tennessee
Saturday (game two) – Manhattan's Mark Onorati hit what had to be the longest homerun in Lindsey Nelson Stadium this year on the first swing of the game. Levi Dean, who was amid his first career start for UT, settled down and was bailed out by Farragut-native Ethan Bennett, who launched a two-run homer the next inning, and again by Zach Osborne who drew what turned out to be the game-winning walk with the bases loaded in the fourth. 3-1, Tennessee
Sunday – If you stepped away for a few minutes of Sunday's game, you might have missed one of Bennett's four hits, and you probably missed a Tennessee run and you almost certainly missed a Vols' hit—UT scored in every inning except the fourth because of a season-high 22 team hits. Jon Reed, who pitched into the fifth inning, had his strongest start of the year, and the Carter Watson-led bullpen was characteristically untouchable in the double-digit win. 15-1, Tennessee
"Now we're winning the games we should." – Matt Ramsey, UT's catcher and closer
It's easy to say that Tennessee baseball has only beaten up on weak opponents so far this season, and to an extent, that's probably a fair criticism. But it's important to remember that the Vols have often played to the level of the competition and have dropped a lot of games against seemingly-inferior opponents in recent years.
Before this year's 13-2 start, Tennessee had posted a lackluster combined record of 26-19 through the seasons' first fifteen games under Raleigh—losses came against teams the like of Binghamton, Kennesaw State, Austin Peay and Morehead State. Maybe the fourth time is a charm, but more than likely the difference has been the depth and versatility of the pitching staff.
"[Last year] it seemed like every weekend we were either tied or ahead of someone going into the seventh inning [but they would lose it]," Matt Ramsey, UT's closer-turned-catcher, said. "The bullpen's been huge for us. And we're looking for it to stay that way."
A trio of relievers in particular—Carter Watson, Zach Godley and Dalton Saberhagen—has been the change the Vols needed. In a combined 23+ innings, the group has yet to allow an earned run.
"[They give us] so much confidence," Ethan Bennett said. "It's easier on the hitters…if we flank a ball to the right side and they catch it, we know our pitchers are going to come out here and wheel and deal."
"See ball, hit ball." – Ethan Bennett, freshman catcher and designated hitter
It's easy to over-analyze the mechanics of a swing or to make meaning of nothing from a box score. That's not likely to be a problem for Bennett.
The catcher, who entered Sunday's game with an RBI more than the six hits he had on the year, was confident everything would come together after a while despite a slow start to the year.
"I just wanted to come in and help the team however I could," says Bennett. "I knew the hits would come…and I'm glad I've gotten the opportunity to get in the mix so early."
What did he think as he hit a rocket over The Porch in left field during Saturday's second game?
"See ball, hit ball. That's all there is to it."
"Duffman, can't breathe!" – Not UT's third baseman Matt Duffy, or was it?
A lot can be said about senior third baseman Matt Duffy's start to the season.
Incredible. A lot of improvement. Great at the plate and even better on defense. Doing everything he needs to be drafted high. Those and similar comments have been thrown around in the press box and all around Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Whatever adjectives you prefer, Duffy's performance has been tough to ignore, whether he is gunning the basepaths like Rickey Henderson for three steals, like he did against Canisius, or hitting for the cycle against New Orleans and beating Manhattan with a game-changing grand slam in the same week.
Forget the .412 batting average, the SEC-leading 24 RBIs and the array of other early-season accomplishments, Duffy describes his season differently when pressed by reporters:
"There are some swings I would like back."
Surely that's not the best way he can think to describe his numbers so far. He pauses for a moment and tries again. "Not bad."
Not bad at all.
On The Road …
Tennessee will take its 13-2 start to the season and its seven-game win streak on the road for the first time. After the last home game against Alabama A&M, the Vols will play Austin Peay Wednesday and then head to Lexington for a weekend series against Kentucky.