Christian Moore Introduces Himself as Tennessee Downs Oklahoma
HOUSTON — There’s taking advantage of opportunities that are placed in front of you, and then there’s a level up from that, which is what Tennessee freshman DH Christian Moore did on Sunday in an 8-0 win for Tennessee over Oklahoma.
He began his day with a ringing double into the left field corner in the second inning, eventually coming around to score on a bases-loaded walk. In the third, he showed off his power and his speed, as he sent a ball off the wall deep in right-center and came all the way around for an inside-the-park home run. He was moving fast enough on the play, in fact, that the relay throw home never came and he scored standing up. In the fourth inning, he stung an RBI single. Only a fly out to center in the seventh kept him from a perfect day at the plate.
It wasn’t a bad day for a player who might not have been in the lineup on a normal day, but with regular center fielder Drew Gilbert missing Sunday due to a minor injury, a few pieces had to be moved around and things shook out with Moore at DH. The success he had on Sunday isn’t the easiest thing to do for someone trying to break into the lineup
“It’s a catch-22,” said Tennessee coach Tony Vitello. “When a coach gives you an opportunity, you can’t be squeezing the heck out of the bat (like) ‘if I don’t get a hit, I’m not going to play again.’ But in the same way, you’ve got to go about your business that kind of takes advantage of the opportunity or seizes the moment.”
Moore’s ability is no secret, even as he’s had limited chances so far this season. He was a top 300 draft prospect coming out of high school last summer and at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, his physicality is apparent in the batter’s box.
He was just 2-for-8 going into Sunday, but even within that, you could see his potential, as both of those hits were home runs. Suffice it to say that Tennessee might have liked to get Moore into games more to this point, but with the way the offense has been swinging the bats, it’s been a tough lineup to crack.
“Everything’s kind of up for sale right now,” Vitello said of the ongoing competition for at-bats. “We’ve got guys seizing the opportunity, but I don’t think the doors are shut on several roles for our team. It should be exciting for the guys when they come to the park for practice or a game.”
The fact that Tennessee has this kind of depth in the lineup wasn’t a given coming into the season, necessarily.
After last season, the Volunteers lost five regulars from the lineup, and not just any five regulars, but their top three hitters in Liam Spence, Jake Rucker and Pete Derkay, plus Max Ferguson, who slugged 12 home runs, and Connor Pavolony, a steady catcher with some power.
And yet, here they are putting up big offensive numbers all over again. Even if you toss out the gaudy numbers the Vols put up against an overmatched Iona pitching staff the second weekend of the season, what they’ve done is impressive.
They scored nine or more runs in all three wins in a sweep of Georgia Southern to begin the season and this weekend put up 10 and eight runs, respectively, against a pair of Big 12 opponents in Baylor and Oklahoma after getting held to two runs against Texas on Friday night.
“I thought they were good against (Texas’ Pete) Hansen,” Vitello said. “I don’t like saying it because he’s on their team, but no one’s really done that well against him, and I thought we were in position to score more than we did, and then when they went to their pen, again our at-bats were competitive. We were having to play from behind. So the results were better the second two days. I’d say if there’s any difference at all, our guys were a little less jacked up (the last two days). You can’t go to the park asleep, but you can’t be at an 11.”
The four regulars who returned have been a big part of the offensive success, as you might expect.
Gilbert is 14-for-28 with five doubles, first baseman Luc Lipcius is hitting .355/.500/.581, right fielder Jordan Beck is hitting .317/.370/.683 with four home runs and catcher Evan Russell, who slid behind the plate when Tennessee found itself without an experienced backstop in the fall, is hitting .313/.450/.781.
Just as important to this lineup being as strong as it has shown so far, though, is a group of role players from last year who have taken clear steps forward.
Third baseman Trey Lipscomb had 29 at-bats last season, just nine of which came after the calendar flipped to April. This season, he’s locked down a starting job so far by hitting .390/.413/.927 with a team-leading five homers.
Similarly, shortstop Cortland Lawson had 14 at-bats in 2021. In 2022, he’s hitting .321/.548/.571 with a team-leading 13 walks. Then there’s Jorel Ortega, who might be the unlikeliest star of the bunch, and not just because he went 4-for-27 last season. For much of the leadup to the season, he wasn’t expected to be a regular, but he was plugged into the Opening Day lineup, went 3-for-3 against Georgia Southern, and Vitello hasn’t been able to take him out ever since. He’s hitting .364/.488/.727 and stung the ball consistently this weekend.
“He was not our starting second baseman until the day of our Opening Day for various circumstances,” Vitello said. “The kid plays with a lot of passion, and when he’s focused, he’s electric. He’s always loose. He loves playing baseball as much as any kid on our team, but when he’s also focused, it’s a dangerous combo, and I think he’s kind of brought that every day.”
The players who have felt the lineup squeeze the most as a result are probably the freshmen like Christian Moore, but he’s not the only one. Until recently, outfielder Jared Dickey hadn’t seen much time, but he appears to be a stalwart now. He’s 13-for-23 so far this season with eight walks compared to just one strikeout. He takes good at-bats and makes a lot of contact, making him a good fit in the leadoff spot, which is where he was in Saturday and Sunday’s games.
Blake Burke is another such player. He’s gotten just 12 at-bats this season, but on Sunday, we saw what he is capable of as he flicked a pitch with easy power to the opposite field for a home run into the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park.
Right now, Tennessee simply has more players it would like to give at-bats than it has at-bats to give. That’s a good problem to have and one that will give it enviable depth and the ability to mix and match based on a lot of variables every day.
In an SEC full of prolific offenses, it was reasonable to expect that Tennessee’s would be one to take a step back this season, but that just doesn’t appear that it’s going to end up being the case.