Monthly Archives: March 2016

An expanded look at the decision to hit Benito Santiago at leadoff

Wrote about Tennessee’s recent decision to hit Benito Santiago in the leadoff spot in today’s paper. This is an expanded version of that story. 

After losses in the first two games of last week’s SEC series at Alabama, Tennessee coach Dave Serrano decided he’d had enough.

The Vols once-potent offense had been sidetracked since losing leadoff hitter and senior second baseman Jeff Moberg for the season to a torn ACL. After averaging 8.8 runs per game in the first 16 games of the season, the Vols were averaging 5.1 runs per game in six games without him and just four runs per game in their first five SEC contests.

“I said to the staff, ‘We need to shake things up a little bit,’ ” Serrano said Thursday. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over.”

So he and the UT coaching staff did something other coaches might consider insane on its face. They put a catcher in the leadoff spot.

And they haven’t lost since.

Benito Santiago batted first in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Alabama and won 6-3 to avoid a series sweep. They left him there and won two more games this week by a combined score of 20-2. Santiago is 5-for-11 with six runs scored in those three games.

The Vols (16-9, 2-4 SEC) head into a three-game home series against No. 24 Kentucky (18-7, 4-2) with a .339 batting average in the last three games.

The series begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and continues at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Since the injury to Moberg, the Vols had simply moved everyone else up one spot in the lineup. No. 2 hitter Chris Hall moved up to leadoff, No. 3 hitter Nick Senzel moved up to No. 2 and so on. It seemed to take everyone out of their comfort zone, however, and the coaching staff decided to try to get that back, but they needed to move someone else to the top of the order.

Enter Santiago.

The son of the former Major League catcher with the same name had a miserable freshman season at the plate, hitting .132 but has been much better as a sophomore. Batting mostly in the No. 6 hole in a catching platoon with Tyler Schultz, he is hitting .385.

Santiago isn’t as patient as traditional leadoff hitters, with part of the purpose of the job being to force the opposing starter to throw pitches. He has just three walks so far this season. However, he has more speed than most catchers (three stolen bases on three attempts) and some power. Plus, he pairs well with Hall, who reached by walk 16 times and hit-by-pitch seven times and has a .514 on-base percentage.

“We just decided to put him at the top,” Serrano said. “Now it pushes everyone down into their normal slot. Benito brings an excitement at the start of the game. He can run into some balls. He brings an aggressiveness to the base paths. It just kind of made sense.”

It does, because it brings back the dynamic the Vols had early in the season with Moberg when they had three table setters in the No. 9, 1 and 2 spots with senior Derek Lance, Moberg and senior Chris Hall ahead of run producers Senzel, senior Vincent Jackson and junior Jordan Rodgers in the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots.

Moberg’s numbers will be hard for Santiago to duplicate. After batting .130 last season, Moberg was hitting .415 with a .519 on-base percentage and a Division I-leading 28 runs scored when his injury occurred. Santiago’s OBP is .418 because he has drawn just three walks this season in 56 plate appearances.

In Lance (.423), Santiago (.418) and Hall (.514), though, the Vols have three hitters with on-base percentages of .420 or better. If that keeps up, that will provide ample opportunity for Senzel, Jackson and Rodgers, who are responsible for all 13 of Tennessee’s home runs and a total of 105 RBI.

“They’re not all going to get on base every time,” assistant coach Aric Thomas said of Lance, Santiago and Hall. “But with those three guys in a row, you have a good chance of one of them to be on base and a lot of times two out of the three to get on base. … It’s the element of speed, too, they all can run. Now if you have a double with a man on first, he’s gonna score. I think you get more fastballs with the threat of the run.”

Making it an every-day lineup forced the Vols to find an additional position for Santiago, because catching every day makes for wear-and-tear on one’s knees. They have put him in right field the days Schultz catches, moving Hall from right to center and Lance from center to second base, which they decided to try when Moberg went down. On the days Santiago catches, Lance stays in center, Hall in right and senior Jared Pruett plays second base.

Lance and Santiago both had some experience at their new positions at the high school level. The Vols have hustled to get them up to speed, and Serrano believes both are at least serviceable.”

“It starts with athletic ability,” Serrano said. “Both Derek and Benito have athletic ability. Second, you’ve gotta go to both of them have played the position in the past. Derek was an infielder by trade in high school. That’s all he ever played before he got here, and Benito had a history in the outfield. … They’re a little rough around the edges, but it’s kind of what we have to do right now. Sometimes we have to sacrifice some things to be successful. This is kind of our sacrifice. I don’t like giving up defense but I don’t know how much defense we’re really truly giving up on an every-day basis. I’d say on a scale of a 1-10, they’re about a 6 or 7 on comfortableness. … We know we’re probably giving up a little bit from the defensive side of it, but hopefully we’ll make it up on the offensive side.”


Alvin Kamara on Diversity Matters

Didn’t get this into the stories in today’s paper, but thought this was worth putting out there. As we reported here Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alvin Kamara were part of the UT Diversity Matters protest at the Tennessee-Ole Miss basketball game on March 5. Before spring break, I asked Reeves-Maybin about it, and he gave his response at the bottom of this story.

With the Vols now back from spring break, Kamara addressed the matter after practice Tuesday.

“Just to let that branch of the university know that the athletes are there,” Kamara said. “A lot of times, the athletes stay in our own little world. It’s like, from practice to class and we just disappear. That’s something that was important to me, the diversity matter on campus. I made it known that I was there for that. A lot of the people that were involved were thankful that we were there, me and Jalen and some other guys on the team. It’s not a publicity stunt or anything to go out there. It was really something I was generally interested in, so I made it a point to be there.”

Kamara was asked how closely he followed the issue.

“I’m still following it,” Kamara said. “I did my research. A lot of guys, there were pictures of us on Twitter and we got a lot of backlash, but if I wasn’t educated on the matter I wouldn’t have been there.”

Jalen Reeves-Maybin out for spring

Senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is out for the rest of spring with an injury, Tennessee coach Butch Jones confirmed after practice Tuesday. Jones said he expects Reeves-Maybin to return in the first week of June.

Jones refused to disclose the nature of the injury, but Reeves-Maybin wore a sling on his left arm at practice Tuesday, watching in street clothes.

Jones also said that redshirt sophomore Dillon Bates is out for the rest of the spring. His injury is also undisclosed and he is also expected to return early in June.

Reeves-Maybin finished fourth in the SEC in 2016 with 105 tackles. He was named second-team All-SEC by the media. The injuries to Reeves-Maybin and Bates further deplete a defense that was already missing several key players including All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and safety Evan Berry, an All-American kickoff returner.

“Right now we have 12 individuals who are out for spring,” Jones said. “We have linebackers that need those repetitions. On the back end, we have a number of individuals vying for playing time. Where it really limits you is up front. Kinda like last spring. So we’re not able to do as much.”

Running back Jalen Hurd was also held out of Tuesday’s practice, but Jones said he was only dealing with tendinitis and should return to practice soon.

On Tennessee’s pitching issues

When the season began, Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano had every reason to believe that his pitching staff would be a reliable pillar for his team and that his offense would struggle to produce runs.

Nineteen games in, the situation is exactly the opposite. The offense has come back to earth since scoring 51 runs in a weekend Feb. 26-28 and 37 runs in three games March 9-12, but the Vols are still averaging 8.2 runs per game, good for 15th nationally. After losing three of their top four hitters to the Major League Baseball draft last season as well as their top three recruits among position players, their team batting average is up from .263 at the end of last season to .312 so far this year.

Pitching hasn’t been nearly as effective. The Vols are 12th in the SEC with a 3.81 ERA and Serrano admittedly isn’t sure yet how he will rearrange the pitching staff. He was hoping for a breakout season from his son, junior right-hander Kyle Serrano, but the younger Serrano had season-ending Tommy John surgery. The Vols haven’t found another starter to rely on beyond sophomore left-hander Zach Warren, who has been promoted to the role of Friday night starter in SEC series with a 4-0 record and 1.55 earned run average.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to have to be fixed on the mound,” Serrano said Sunday after the Vols lost 10-7 to Ole Miss to drop two out of three in their first SEC series. “Right now I know Zach Warren is our Friday starter. Besides that, there’s a lot of flipping of coins for me right now.”

The major collective issue, Serrano said, is that the Vols seem to be afraid to attack the strike zone.

“We have to be more committed to strikes,” Serrano said. “And we’ve gotta have better trust within ourselves that we can throw our stuff over the plate.”

The Vols have issued 86 walks in 170 innings. Georgia and Auburn are the only teams that have walked more with 90 each.

Just as big of a problem as the walks themselves are the hitters counts the Vols have gotten themselves in to and the high pitch counts they have needed to get through innings. Serrano said he counted 20 3-2 counts over the Ole Miss weekend.

“That just doesn’t produce good baseball,” Serrano said.

The hitters counts are helping opposing teams hit a combined .274. Opponents are hitting just .223 off Warren, who has 30 strikeouts against just 10 walks. Of the other four pitchers on the staff who have at least two starts this season, none has an opponent’s batting average lower than sophomore Eric Freeman’s .283. Opponents are hitting .304 against senior left-hander Andy Cox, .317 against junior Hunter Martin and .333 against freshman Daniel Vasquez.

The numbers against Cox and Martin are the most concerning, Serrano said. Cox is second on the team with 26 strikeouts, but has a team-worst 20 walks and a 7.33 earned run average. Martin has 2.25 ERA, but that’s deceptive because he hasn’t made it out of the first inning in either of his last two starts. In both of those outings, a reliever spared him much bigger trouble by stepping in to get an out with runners in scoring position.

“It’s the older guys,” Serrano said. “It’s the older guys that have to get out of their own way and help this team like guys with experience should help this team.”

Serrano said he has been much happier with young relievers, including junior college transfer Jon Lipinski, sophomore lefty Zach Reid and freshman right-hander Will Neely. Neely especially could have a chance to join the rotation.

“There’s a lot of evaluating I have to do with the pitching staff,” Serrano said. “There’s a lot of decisions I’m going to make.”

Ole Miss takes series from Tennessee with 10-7 win

WHAT HAPPENED: Tennessee starter Hunter Martin failed to make it out of the first inning and Ole Miss used a five-run fifth-inning to take a 10-7 win over Tennessee in the series finale on Sunday in front of 1,572 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The No. 12 Rebels improved to 19-2 overall, 2-1 in the SEC. The Vols fell to 12-7, 1-2.

Martin retired the first two batters he faced in the first, but then allowed the next five batters to reach. Ole Miss center fielder J.B. Woodman doubled, third baseman Colby Bortles doubled to drive him in and second baseman Tate Blackman singled to score Bortles. Henri Lartigue also singled and designated hitter Holt Perdzock walked to load the bases, which led Serrano to make a change.  Continue reading

Game 3, Ole Miss at Tennessee

Bottom 9th: Nick Senzel doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jordan Rodgers, but Ole miss made two spectacular out field catches to clinch a 10-7 win.

Top 9th: Errol Robinson reached on an error by Nick Senzel, but Will Neely retired the other three batters. Ole Miss leads 10-6 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Bottom 8th: Derek Lance reached on a two-out single and went to second on an error by the right fielder but was stranded when Chris Hall grounded to third. Ole Miss leads 10-6.

Top 8th: Will Neely gave up a one-out single, but Vincent Jackson made a leaping grab in left, crashing into the wall to end the inning. Ole MIss leads 10-6.

Bottom 7th; Tennessee finally got back on the board in the seventh. Derek Lance doubled to lead off the inning. Chris Hall blooped a single to left, Nick Senzel walked to load the bases, Vincent Jackson drove in a run with a sacrifice fly to center and Jordan Rodgers crushed a three- run homer to left to cut the deficit to 10-6.  Continue reading

Ole Miss at Tennessee, Game 2

Bottom 9th: Wyatt Short retired the side in order to give Ole Miss a 6-4 win. Vols fall to 12-6. Ole Miss is 18-2. Finale of the series at 2 p.m tomorrow.

Top 9th: Tennessee threw two Ole Miss runners out at home in the ninth, but Tate Blackman drew a walk with the bases loaded to give Ole Miss a 6-4 lead into the ninth.

Bottom 8th: Chris Hall led off the eight with a single. Nick Senzel grounded to the pitcher, who forced Hall at second. Vincent Jackson singled to right to give the Vols runners on first and second with one out. However Jordan Rodgers flied out to left and Senzel was thrown out trying to go to third. Ole Miss leads 5-4.

Top 8th: Andy Cox gave up a two-out double to Michael Fitzsimmons but got Ryan Olenek to ground back to him to end the inning. Ole Miss leads 5-4. Continue reading

Lance’s walk-off single gives Vols 3-2 win over Ole Miss in SEC opener

WHAT HAPPENED: Tennessee senior center fielder Derek Lance singled home junior shortstop Max Bartlett in the bottom of the ninth to give the Vols a 3-2 walk-off win over Ole Miss on Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in front of 1,555 in Tennessee’s SEC opener.

The Vols improved to 12-5, 1-0 in the SEC. The No. 12 Rebels fell to 17-2, 1-0.

Ole Miss took a lead in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by sophomore second baseman Tate Blackman. The Vols took the lead in the sixth on three consecutive two-out singles by senior left fielder Vincent Jackson, junior first baseman Jordan Rodgers and junior designated hitter Leno Ramirez. Ole Miss right fielder Cameron Dishon misplayed Ramirez’ single and allowed Jackson and Rodgers to score and Ramirez to go to third.

Ole Miss tied the game in the eighth on a leadoff home run by junior center fielder J.B. Woodman. In the ninth, however, Bartlett ripped a two-out double that one-hopped the left field wall and Lance drove him in by lining a single to center.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Bartlett had struggled all season and was 0-for-3 in the game, allowing his average to drop to .196. However, his hit came through in the most opportune of occasions.

Lance was also 0-for-3 in the game with a pair of strikeouts, but made sure the opportunity didn’t pass him.

Tennessee starter Zach Warren proved himself worthy of being the Friday night starter, striking out a career-high eight batters in 6 1/3 innings. He allowed just four hits and three walks, retiring the first 10 hitters he faced and pitching out of jams in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Lipinski gave up the home run to Woodman, but mostly came through otherwise.

WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Tennessee came up clutch in situations where they had two outs and no one on, scoring all three runs that way. Ole Miss starter Brady Bramlett overpowered them early, striking out nine batters in 5 2/3 innings, but the Vols got to him in the sixth and then got to Wyatt Short in the ninth.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: Tennessee coach Dave Serrano said he didn’t want to make too much of this win, but it means a lot for the Vols’ confidence. In Bramwell, they faced a Friday night starter who showed them why he had earned the distinction, pin-pointing mid-90s heat. They faced a team that had lost just once all season against a Louisville team that is currently ranked No. 4 in the country. However, they refused to be put down and outlasted the Rebels, coming through with a victory that could do wonders for their RPI. It’s just a start, but the Vols’ SEC season could not have started better.

Ole Miss at Tennessee, Game 1

Bottom 9th: Max Bartlett hit a two-out double off the left field wall and Derek Lance lined a single to center field to give Tennessee a 3-2 win over Ole Miss.

Top 8th: J.B. Woodman tied the game by cranking a 1-1 pitch from Jon Lipinski over the right field wall to tie the game 2-2. The Vols could’ve been in even bigger trouble if not for runner’s interference later in the inning.

Bottom 7th Jared Pruett drew a one-out walk but was stranded at first. Tennessee still leads 2-1.

Top 7th: Michael Fitzsimmons singled with one out in the seventh to end Zach Warren’s day. Kyle Watson, who pinch-ran for him, stole second base and went to third on a groundout, but Nick Senzel made a brilliant play on a hard ground ball by Errol Robinson to end the inning. The Vols maintain a 2-1 lead.

Bottom 6th: Brady Bramlett retired the first two hitters of the sixth, but didn’t escape the inning. Vincent Jackson and Jordan Rodgers lined back-to-back singles up the middle, then designated hitter Leno Ramirez lined a single to right that bounced off the glove of right fielder Cameron Dishon, allowing two runs to score. Bramlett was relieved by reliever David Parkinson, who struck out Tyler Schultz to end the inning, but Tennessee took a 2-1 lead.  Continue reading

Bishop throws 6 2/3 scoreless in Irvine’s 2-0 win over Vols

WHAT HAPPENED: UC Irvine left-hander Cameron Bishop held the Tennessee scoreless for 6 2/3 innings and the Anteaters’ relievers preserved the shutout in a 2-0 win over the Vols in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The Vols fell to 10-5 and Irvine improved to 10-6.

Irvine scored both of its runs in the third inning. Catcher Matt Reitano and John Brontsema started the inning with back-to-back singles. After a bunt moved them to second and third, Keston Hiura was intentionally walked to load the bases. First baseman Mitchell Holland drove Reitano home with a sacrifice fly and Brontsema scored on an RBI single by second baseman Cole Kreuter.

The Vols loaded the bases in the second on a double by left fielder Vincent Jackson, a walk to first baseman Jordan Rodgers and a single by catcher Tyler Schultz. Designated hitter Matt Waldren and shortstop Max Bartlett struck out, however, and center fielder Derek Lance lined out to short to end the inning.

In the fourth, Schultz reached with a two-out walk and Waldren followed up with a double into the left field corner. Irvine catcher Matt Reitano blocked the plate, however, and Schultz’s attempt to get his hand around Reitano’s legs to the plate was deemed unsuccessful by the home plate umpire. Dave Serrano argued but to no avail. The Vols never got another runner past second base.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Bishop allowed just four hits and four walks in 6 2/3 shutout innings and struck out six batters. He used both sides of the plate, kept his fastball low and worked in tough breaking balls to keep UT off-balance. Relievers Ben Ritchey, Dylan Riddle and Calvin Facuher were equally dominant, allowing just four base runners between them.

WHY DID IT HAPPEN: The Vols did manage to hit a few pitches hard, but they were generally right at Irvine defenders. The play at the plate was tough, and the Vols also lost another base-runner in the fourth when Jordan Rodgers stole second but was thrown out trying for third when the ball went into the outfield.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: The Vols still won the series and that will be big for the RPI and the ego because it avenges a series loss last season in California. Still, failing to earn a sweep when it was very much achievable stings for UT.