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Preview: Vols Set to Begin SEC Tournament Play Against In-State Rival Vanderbilt

HOOVER, Ala. -- The No. 1 Tennessee BaseVols are set to take on the No. 8 Vanderbilt Commodores in Hoover Met Stadium for their first game of the SEC Baseball Tournament. 

The Vols' matchup with the 'Dores is a second-round matchup in the tournament since the top-ranked Vols got a bye. Vanderbilt defeated No. 9 seed Ole Miss to advance to the second round. 

After a series of weather delays in Hoover, first pitch between Tennessee and Vanderbilt is scheduled for approximately 6:15 p.m. CT, 30 minutes after the completion of Texas A&M vs. Florida that began at 2:45 p.m. CT in Hoover Met. 

The Vols enter their first game of the SEC Tournament coming off a series sweep against the reigning College World Series Champions in the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who ultimately did not make the SEC Tournament after finishing last in the SEC West. In the series sweep, Chase Dollander and Blade Tidwell shined, Jorel Ortega hit 11 RBIs, and Tennessee baseball set records with their 27-2 drubbing of the Bulldogs in the series opener. 

One thing the Vols did not have against the Bulldogs in Starkville is standout freshman utility man Jared Dickey. However, Dickey took to Instagram on Wednesday posting that he will make his return to action in Hoover. 

The extent of his usage remains to be seen, as Seth Stephenson has grown to become a reliable leadoff hitter and strong starting left fielder for Tennessee. And at DH, it would be hard pressed to pull Blake Burke completely from the lineup given the power of his bat. A role in which Dickey starts a couple games, not all, at DH for the Vols while in Hoover makes the most sense to ease the freshman back into action. 

The last time the Vols and Commodores met, Tennessee swept Vanderbilt for the first time in 13 years while also becoming the first SEC team to begin conference play in 28 years. The Vols' 9-0 start to conference play also served as the best league start in program history.

Needless to say, Tennessee's beatdown of Vanderbilt on their home turf is destined to give the Commodores an extra gear against their in-state rival on the big stage. But the Vols have not forgotten about being bounced in the championship game of last year's SEC Tournament against Arkansas. 

Against one of their biggest rivals, Tennessee will be looking to "play good baseball," as head coach Tony Vitello noted in Tuesday's SEC Tournament preview Zoom press conference (watch above). 

To do that, Vitello and the Vols will be looking for an efficient outing from ace Blade Tidwell, who is likely to get the starting nod in Tennessee's SEC Tournament opener. 

Tidwell's most recent outing saw the sophomore deal three perfect innings, striking out five batters and retiring all nine. Of the Vols' four-man starting rotation (Dollander, Burns, Beam, Tidwell), Tidwell was the only Vol to not get a start against Mississippi State, making Vitello's decision to give Tidwell the ball to begin postseason play an unsurprising one. 

What's at Stake

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If Tennessee is able to perform the complete season sweep of the Commodores on Thursday evening, the Vols will advance to the third round of the tournament to face off against the winner of LSU vs. Kentucky. If UT loses to Vanderbilt, they will play the loser of LSU vs. Kentucky. 

Vandy Info

Vanderbilt's lineup is led by freshman utility man Spencer Jones, who has a .378 batting average this ear with a team-high 76 hits. Jones has recorded 48 RBIs and nine home runs this year. The home run leader for the 'Dores is senior utility man Dominic Keegan, who has left the yard 12 times and accumulated a team-high 58 RBIs so far this season. 

Sophomore outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. is also a threat, especially when on base. Bradfield Jr. has stolen 42 bases this season, which leads the league and is fourth in the NCAA. Bradfield Jr. is the leadoff man for Vanderbilt, posting a .420 on base percentage this season. 

On the mound, the Commodores' projected starting pitcher is freshman LHP Devin Futrell (8-2, 3.27 ERA). Futrell has served as the main midweek starter for Vanderbilt  this season but started the final two weekend series of the regular season against Arkansas LSU, going 1-1. Futrell's loss to LSU was his worst outing of the season, allowing five hits, five earned runs and a pair of home runs against the Tigers in only 1.1 innings pitched. Futrell's ERA on the day was a 33.75. Futrell's best performance on the season came against Lipscomb when the freshman threw a complete game to lead the 'Dores to a 7-1 midweek win. 

Futrell did not make an appearance against Tennessee just like Tidwell didn't against Vanderbilt, so both teams are likely to see new arms on Thursday evening. 

How to Watch

The Vols' showdown with Vanderbilt will be broadcast on SEC Network. John Wilkerson will have the call on the Vol Network. 

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