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What LSU coach Paul Mainieri says UVA fans need to know about Tennessee

LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s Tigers lost all five of their games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this season, including getting swept by #3 national seed Tennessee last weekend in the Super Regional, which sounds worse than it was.

Two of the losses were in extras; two others were two-run losses in which LSU had the tying or go-ahead run at the plate in the ninth.

Mainieri, who gave UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor his first full-time, full-paying job in baseball, and still talks with O’Connor weekly during the baseball season, and more frequently out of season, has no doubt shared what he knows in terms of game planning for the Volunteers with his protégé.

The long-time coach, who is retiring this summer after 39 seasons that include stops at Air Force and Notre Dame, joined “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show” on Friday to share his scouting report on Tennessee ahead of the Vols’ matchup with Virginia on Sunday.

Abbott vs. the UT offense

“I think Virginia matches up really well with them. They’ve got several left-handed hitters, and I think Andrew Abbott‘s a really good matchup for them. They strike out an awful lot offensively, and Abbott’s a strikeout pitcher,” Mainieri said.

The lefty Abbott (8-6, 3.04 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 152K/30BB, .228 opponent BA in 100.2 IP) is among the nation’s elite in strikeouts per 9 innings (13.6Ks/9), and that 5.1 K/BB ratio stands out for a power pitcher.

The Tennessee lineup does feature four lefthanded hitters – first baseman Luc Lipcius (.248/.364/.495, 15 HR, 42 RBI), second baseman Max Ferguson (.256/.382/.471, 12 HR, 46 RBI, centerfielder Drew Gilbert (.275/.344/.443, 10 HR, 62 RBI, 10-of-11 SB/SBA), and DH Pete Derkay (.282/.403/.420, 4 HR, 20 RBI, 5-of-7 SB/SBA).

The powerful UT lineup features six guys in total with nine of more homers – Lipcius, Ferguson and Gilbert, plus rightfielder Jordan Beck (.270/.331/.524, 15 HR, 63 RBI), leftfielder Evan Russell (.247/.353/.520, 14 HR, 43 RBI) and third baseman Jake Rucker (.331/.400/.526, 9 HR, 55 RBI, 7-of-10 SB/SBA).

That’s two-thirds of your regulars with big bats, but there’s a catch.

“Their ballpark in Knoxville is really a home-run hitters haven, I can’t even tell you,” Mainieri said, and it checks out.

Lindsey Nelson Stadium is a wiffle-ball field – 320 down the lines, 360 in the power alleys, 390 to center.

“The last game that we played there, there were 10 home runs hit the game between two teams. At one point, I think there were 12 hits between the two teams, and seven of the hits were home runs. You’re not going to see that a TD Ameritrade Park,” Mainieri said, and, again, it checks out.

TD Ameritrade, home to the College World Series, is 335 down the lines, 375 to the power alleys, 408 to dead-center – i.e. not conducive to a lot of home runs.

“And their team is really built to hit home runs, a lot of uppercut swings, a lot of big swings, so they strike out a lot, but they hit a lot of home runs, but a lot of their home runs are really pop-ups. They hit several opposite-field home runs that, no way they go out of TD Ameritrade Park,” Mainieri said.

So, Tennessee is built a lot like you see teams in MLB – lots of homers (98 as a team), lots of Ks (557, representing 24.3 percent of their at bats this season), and lots of walks (330, right at 5.0 per game).

“The one thing that Tennessee really tries to do is, they try to walk a lot offensively, and they try to run the pitch count up on the other team’s starting pitcher,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s really key that Abbott gets ahead in the counts and doesn’t mess around any, you know, goes for the kill right away. You know, if you can get ahead with two strikes, don’t mess around, just go right after him. And he’ll get some strikeouts anyway, but I think you’ll get a lot of fly ball outs in that vast outfield.”

Not only does TD Ameritrade play more like Davenport Field (332 down the lines, 370 to left-center, 372 to right-center, 404 to dead-center – but then there’s the factor of the wind blowing in off the Missouri River.

“I think how the wind will be blowing in the ballpark will be a big factor, because you know, sometimes that wind is blowing in, and it’s impossible to hit a ball out of the park,” Mainieri said. “Like when we were there in ’17, up until the finals against Florida, the wind was actually blowing out for one of the rare occasions in that ballpark, and we actually were able to hit some home runs, but you couldn’t hit cheap home runs there. And so I think that’ll be a factor.”

UT’s pitching staff

“The thing that’s underrated about Tennessee is their pitching,” Mainieri said. “They actually they actually led the SEC in earned run average (3.42 team ERA in 2021), which is amazing to me, because their pitchers have to pitch in that ballpark that they call their home field as well.”

The Sunday starter, Chad Dallas (11-1, 4.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 118K/19BB, .235 opponent BA in 86.1 IP in 2021), “is like two different pitchers against righthanders and against lefthanders,” Mainieri said.

“Against righthanders, man, he throws 75 percent sliders, and it’s a really good slider, and the two games we went against him, we just didn’t have an answer for it. I think he struck out 11 back in March, and he struck out I think 12 against us the other day. He throws it for a strike, and he can also make it chase it, and he’s a really hard-nosed competitor, and he’s tough. But then against lefthanded hitters, he pretty much uses his fastball, and he throws 93, 94 miles an hour. So obviously Virginia’s got to find a way to get some runs against him, and he’s hard to get runs against,” Mainieri said.

Tennessee closer Sean Hunley (7-4, 9 saves, 2.92 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 75K/11BB, .214 opponent BA in 71.0 IP) is the opposite of Dallas in terms of stuff, according to Mainieri.

“He throws almost nothing but fastballs, but his fastball is only 89 to 90 miles an hour, and yet you don’t really get good swings against it,” Mainieri said. “He gets some swing and miss, and he doesn’t really give up a lot of hard contact, and it’s kind of a low three-quarters delivery. And you think that there’s going to be a lot of run on his fastball, but he kind of stays on the same plane, so I think it kind of fools the hitters a little bit. It seems like it’s harder than 89, 90 miles an hour. It’s not unhittable, so, you know, they’re just going to have to find a way to be able to put the bat on the ball and scratch together some runs.”

Final analysis

“I can’t imagine it’s going to be a high-scoring game, and Virginia is used to play in a lot of low-scoring-type games. I think that that will end up favoring them,” Mainieri said.

“It’s very easy to sit back and analyze things and say this is going to happen, or that’s going to happen, but the kids are out there on the field, and they get to play the game, and they’re under a lot of pressure. There’s going to be 25,000 people in the stands, national television, high stakes, and you know sometimes what that stuff does to people, and I hope it does it to Tennessee, you know, where they don’t play their game.

“But if you just took it in and they were playing out there in a vacant lot, I think that Virginia matches up really well with Tennessee,” Mainieri said. “They’re a home-run hitting team, but I think Abbott is a really good matchup, along with Virginia’s bullpen, because Tennessee strikes out an awful lot. And as long as they can throw the ball over the plate consistently, not walk batters, then I I think they could shut Tennessee’s offense down, I really do. And if they do, but they’re still going to have to find ways to score some runs too. But who knows, two or three runs could win the ballgame with Virginia’s pitching.”

Story by Chris Graham

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