Led by Diodati Homers, Alabama Hands Tennessee First SEC Loss
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Alabama on Friday handed Tennessee its first SEC loss of the season by a 6-3 score at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville.
Missouri last weekend walked so that Alabama could run this weekend, apparently, because Friday’s Crimson Tide win didn’t look all that different from the Tigers’ near misses a week ago, but they were simply able to take it a step further and get the job done.
You will recall last Friday that Missouri ran Tennessee righthander Chase Burns out of the game after just 2.2 innings, having scored two runs on three hits and four walks against him.
Alabama did something similar this time around. After a fairly quick scoreless first inning for Burns, and after the Volunteers scored two runs in the bottom of the first and threatened for more, Crimson Tide DH Owen Diodati connected for a solo homer in the second inning. One inning later, shortstop Jim Jarvis hit a solo home run of his own, and Diodati led off the fourth with another solo shot.
That gave the Tide a 3-2 lead, and two batters later, Burns was done with just three-plus innings to his name on the night. The three solo homers had the most to do with Burns’ short outing, but Alabama also collected seven hits against him altogether, which kept consistent pressure on him.
“I think we really preached not trying to do too much,” Diodati said. “When a guy like that is on the mound, a lot of the time your tendency is to try and do more. I think we really preach trying to do less. You’re going to get your fastballs to hit and that’s kind of what we tried to do.”
Last Friday, Missouri’s starting pitcher Spencer Miles turned in a gutsy start against the powerful Tennessee offense, working around some base runners and leaving the game with his team ahead.
This time around, it was Alabama righthander Garrett McMillan who did something similar. The Vols’ offense came out hot, with five of the first six batters reaching base and two runs coming across, and there was lots of hard contact in that frame, but McMillan slowly settled in from there.
He stranded the bases loaded in the second inning, and left two runners on in the third before going six up and six down in the fourth and fifth and retiring the first batter he faced in the sixth. A Jorel Ortega solo homer with one out in the sixth chased him from the game, but his being able to fight through 5.1 innings gave his team a chance and he departed with the Tide up 5-3.
“Obviously, G-Mac (McMillan), a little rough out of the gate, but settled in,” Diodati said. “We expect nothing less from him. He’s awesome week in and week out. He’s a dog more than anything. He doesn’t need his best stuff to go out there and give us a great start.”
The big difference between Tennessee being able to fend off the challenge from Missouri last weekend and not quite being able to do so Friday was what the Alabama bullpen did once McMillan left.
The trio of righthander Hunter Hoopes, lefthander Brock Guffey and righthander Dylan Ray combined to hold the Volunteers scoreless over the final 3.2 innings, while Alabama added an insurance run in the ninth. And although Tennessee twice had a runner reach scoring position—in the sixth against Hoopes and in the ninth against Ray—no runner reached third base and there were never two runners on base at any given time against Tide relievers.
“Our bullpen was outstanding,” said Alabama coach Brad Bohannon. “Hunter Hoopes and Guffey to get to Dylan Ray, and I think that run in the ninth kind of took the air out of them a little bit.”
Of all the things that went well for Alabama in the win, Diodati showing signs of getting hot might be the best news.
He came into Friday’s contest 0-for-11 in the last four games in which he had played, lowering his season average to .248, and he appeared just once in the sweep of Mississippi last weekend. That’s a change, but perhaps a positive one in some ways, for a player who started 55 of the team’s 58 games in 2021.
“The last few games, I haven’t played much. A little bit of adversity. Really, for my college career, it’s the first time that’s happened where I kind of had to sit there and watch a little bit, but our guys did a great job to win games, and I was fortunate enough to get in the lineup today,” Diodati said. “(The time off) kind of gave me a chance to sit back and work on some things that get sped up when you’re playing every single day, just get back to basics.”
Diodati’s raw ability, of course, is much greater than what those numbers would suggest, and if he gets hot, he can really help carry an offense. A physical presence at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Diodati has the raw power to match, as shown by the 11 homers he hit last season for the Tide and the seven he hit over the summer in the Cape Cod League.
In the bigger picture, he’s also reduced his strikeout rate compared to last season and he’s walking at a slightly better clip, so while Diodati hasn’t yet had a full breakout season in an Alabama uniform, there’s hope even beyond a two-homer game against the No. 1 team in the country that said breakout could be on the way.
“He’s got a lot of talent, and I think he’s a really mature kid and that’s a really mature way to look at it,” Bohannon said of Diodati saying he worked to use the days out of the lineup to grow. “We all grow from adversity and he’s somebody we’ve given a tremendous amount of opportunity to in his time here because we really believe in him. I really struggle because I feel like I should be getting more out of him because I think he’s really talented. I think he’s a guy guy and I lose a lot of sleep on how I can help him get more production. When he does something like that, I’m not surprised. It’s when he has those bad stretches that I’m surprised. So hopefully, today was a good day for him mentally and he can have the same mindset tomorrow.”
Even in the face of early adversity Friday, Alabama didn’t seem all that fazed. McMillan shook off giving up first-inning runs, kept fighting and gave his team a chance to win. The lineup came out ready to hit and helped quiet down a raucous Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd, which featured the highest attendance of any Tennessee SEC home game this season. And the bullpen calmly slammed the door late.
It felt like a real statement win for an Alabama team that looks to be a real contender in the SEC West, but the performance was no real surprise for anyone in the visitor’s dugout Friday night.
“I think we’ve always believed that we’re right there with a team like this,” Diodati said. “I think early on in the season, we weren’t catching the breaks there, the luck wasn’t going in our favor. That’s kind of turned around for us as of late. It’s huge to come in here and get a win, but we believe in it and that’s just the culture we have. We knew we could do it.”