Tennessee baseball just made an NCAA regional look easy. That's a very good sign | Estes (2024)

Gentry EstesNashville Tennessean

Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Such a nice, quiet regional weekend over there in Knoxville. No mess. No fuss. No surprises or stress for the home team. All went as planned, which was ideal for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

You’d have to imagine, as Tennessee baseball continues another push to Omaha, that it won’t stay so tidy. But then again, how often are opening NCAA regionals as easy as it looked for the top-seeded Vols? They cruised with barely a hiccup, winning three games by a total of 33 runs to 12.

Of 27 innings, only two ended with Tennessee trailing.

What else to say? We didn’t learn much from the three wins that we didn’t already know about these Vols. The strengths are plentiful. The weaknesses? You’ve got to squint to see any right now.

“They are good enough to win the whole thing,” ESPN analyst Ben McDonald said during Sunday’s broadcast. “… It’s their time is what it feels like.”

With Tennessee, you can conjure up reasons to be concerned – at some point, it’ll have to matter the Vols have one true starting pitcher and ask so much of their bullpen, right? – but whatever your concern, it’s not showing on the field.

The bullpen seemingly needs a hero in each game, but those heroes are showing up. On Friday against Northern Kentucky, it was A.J. Causey when coach Tony Vitello pulled Chris Stamos in the first inning. On Saturday against Indiana, it was Andrew Behnke. On Sunday against Southern Miss, it was Nate Snead.

None of the games stayed close until crunch time, though, because seven different Tennessee hitters combined to mash a total of 12 home runs.

Strangely, big ol’ Blake Burke wasn’t one of those seven. Burke walked four times, though. The Vols, overall, walked 29 times in the three games, underscoring the fact that this lineup shouldn’t be perceived as just a bunch of dudes swinging for the fences of a small ballpark. They take pitches. They extend counts. They know how to hit.

Look at Kavares Tears’ stat line from Sunday’s 12-3 win over Southern Miss: He went 1-of-2 with three runs, three RBIs, one home runs and three walks.

Against the Golden Eagles, the Vols’ fearsome leadoff trio of Christian Moore, Burke and Billy Amick combined for a 1-for-13 performance, and it didn’t even matter. That’s partly because they walked five times.

Also didn’t hurt that catcher Cal Stark slugged two home runs, making three in his past two games. Stark is the Vols’ No. 9 hitter. Tennessee got home runs in this regional from every spot in its batting order except No. 2 (Burke) and No. 8.

Indiana trailed 9-0 in the third inning. Northern Kentucky trailed 6-1 after four. The only moderately dicey moment was Southern Miss inching in front 3-2 in the fifth inning, only to have Tennessee swing back with four runs in the sixth and three in seventh.

Entering the super regional, Tennessee has won seven in a row and 15 of its last 17. It won the SEC Tournament and got the No. 1 overall seed, thus running afoul of two curses, same as the Vols’ 2022 team.

But, hey, guess who didn’t advance this easily?

In 2022, Tennessee also took three in a row in an opening regional as the No. 1 overall seed, but there were warnings in those games. Campbell and Georgia Tech each jumped out to 4-0 leads, and the Yellow Jackets stayed ahead until the final inning. Remember Jordan Beck’s famous middle-finger salute on the basepaths? That accompanied his clutch double to tie a tense regional final.

Tennessee survived that opening week in 2022, but it did so shakily. Then those Vols, of course, went on to lose to Notre Dame.

These Vols weren’t shaky this time. They were dominant and overwhelming and appeared the same team that won more than 50 games – if not a little better, because different players keep stepping up these days.

The lights got brighter, and the Vols didn’t flinch. They swarmed and outclassed good competition, and that’s what a championship team does.

Won’t guarantee anything moving forward. But for now, it's an awfully good sign.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.

Tennessee baseball just made an NCAA regional look easy. That's a very good sign | Estes (2024)
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