Weekend Preview: Tennessee

Tennessee coach Dave Serrano

No. 6 LSU and Tennessee meet this weekend for the first time in three seasons. As the season starts to wind down, both teams will battle for postseason positioning.

It's been almost three years since LSU and Tennessee last met on a diamond — an eternity in baseball time.

No player on the Tigers' current roster was on the team during that meeting in 2011. The Vols even have a different coach, but they do have two pitchers that appeared in that series finale, a 15-5 victory for LSU.

SCHEDULE/PITCHING MATCHUPS

GAME 1: Friday, 7 p.m. (No TV)
LSU - RHP Aaron Nola (7-1, 0.88)
UT - RHP Peter Lenstrohm (1-1, 2.13)

GAME 2: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (Cox Sports)
LSU - LHP Jared Poché (6-3, 2.59)
UT - LHP Andy Cox (3-1, 1.62)

GAME 3: Sunday, Noon (No TV)
LSU - TBD
UT - RHP Nick Williams (4-4, 3.54)
So while SEC series typically feature battles between teams familiar with each other, this weekend's three-game set between No. 6 LSU (31-10-1, 10-7-1 SEC) and Tennessee (25-14, 7-11) has each team going in blind.

"They have to prepare the same way because they haven't seen our guys," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "It seems like forever since we last played Tennessee…It'll be a unique environment because you usually have so much familiarity with your opponent. But it's going to be the same for both teams."

LSU comes into this weekend with a lot of confidence after a 14-hit effort Tuesday against Tulane and three straight SEC series victories. For a team that's struggled offensively at points throughout the year, Mainieri's optimistic his team's finally found its stride at the plate.

"We're at that time of year where guys have a lot of at-bets under their belt, the weather's warming up a bit, confidence continues to grow," Mainieri said. "I'd be surprised if we don't have good quality at-bats."

Many also hope the recent lineup changes contribute to a steady offensive resurgence. Andrew Stevenson has moved into the leadoff spot for each of the last two games, and Mainieri said that move is as "permanent as the next game." Former leadoff man Sean McMullen, who leads the team in runs driven in, has dropped into a more RBI-friendly position in the batting order.

"I feel completely indifferent about where coach puts me," McMullen said. "It doesn't really matter once the game gets going, but I did notice that last game I came up almost every at-bat in an RBI-situation, so I love that."

As for the pitching staff, LSU lists "TBA" as the Sunday starter for the sixth consecutive weekend. That spot in the rotation has been a revolving door of sorts, but Mainieri does have a primary option to fill it.

If Alden Cartwright isn't needed out of the bullpen Friday or Saturday, he'll be the guy LSU turns to on Saturday. He threw four scoreless last weekend against Ole Miss, his first career SEC start.

"Whatever it takes to win, if it's on Friday or Saturday, it doesn't matter to me," Cartwright said. "I just want to do whatever I can to do help the team win, and if that means throwing Sunday then it means throwing Sunday."

BREAKING DOWN THE VOLS


SEASON OVERVIEW

Tennessee was one of the big stories during the early season, rolling out to a 15-1 record in the non-conference slate. The Vols have come back down to Earth since the start of SEC play though.

Tennessee has won only two of its six conference series this season, including losses in each of its last two against Georgia and Alabama. At 7-11 in the conference, the Vols rank sixth in the SEC East and are in desperate need of a strong finish to the year to bolster their postseason resume.

PITCHING STAFF

Tennessee will take an interesting approach to its pitching staff this weekend. Junior Pete Lenstrohm will make his first career start Friday, and sophomore Andy Cox will make his third on Saturday. Senior Nick Williams has been a mainstay in the weekend rotation, and he'll pitch Sunday, but don't expect any of the three to go deep into the game.

The Vols plan to use multiple pitchers each day, with Kyle Serrano, Hunter Martin and Bret Marks the next relievers on deck in each contest. The pitching shakeup comes as Tennessee has surrendered 44 hits and 30 runs in its last four conference games.

Relying on relievers seems to be the key, as the bullpen has a combined 2.52 ERA this season while starters come in at 4.24. The prospect of facing several different pitchers each game will require the Tigers to focus solely on their plate approach, moreso than the scouting report.

"Sometimes great stories happen when kids like that get their chance to show what they're made of," McMullen said. "I know they'll go out there and do their best, and we have to do everything we can to capitalize."

LINEUP

Tennessee ranks in the middle of the conference with a .280 combined team batting average this season. That stat falls though when only SEC games are taken into consideration, as the Vols are hitting just .252 in conference action. Only one regular starter, Christin Stewart, has a batting average above .300 in SEC (.347), while Will Maddox (.299 in SEC) and Nick Senzel (.286 in SEC) have batting averages above .300 for the season.

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