No. 11 Tennessee Takes On No. 1 Louisiana State In Star-Filled Series
Baseball fans have had March 30 circled on their calendar for quite some time and for two reasons: the start of the Major League Baseball season and the Tennessee-Louisiana State showdown. Between Tennessee’s 57-9 record last season and LSU’s plethora of high-profile roster additions this summer, the two have been on a collision course to face off against one another for the better part of a year.
While Tennessee comes into this weekend sitting at 3-3 through its first two SEC series, it has amassed a 20-6 overall record and is currently ranked 11th nationally. After getting swept at the hands of No. 25 Missouri to begin conference play, the Volunteers have since won five games in a row, including a sweep of Texas A&M. Their lineup is led by a duo of star sophomores in second baseman Christian Moore and first baseman Blake Burke, as well as stud shortstop Maui Ahuna, junior catcher Jared Dickey and junior third baseman Zane Denton. Moore currently leads the Volunteers in batting average (.360), doubles (4) and on-base percentage (.524). He is an ultra-competitive player who brings an infectious fire to the Tennessee dugout. Burke has some of the most raw power of anyone in the country and it has been on full display in the first half of the 2023 season. He has belted 10 home runs, which is tops on the Tennessee roster, and leads the team in RBIs with 28. Ahuna was one of the best players in the transfer portal this offseason and after being suspended for the first eight games, he has made his presence felt on both sides of the baseball. At the plate he’s hitting .292 with four doubles and four home runs, while on defense he has smooth actions at shortstop and boasts a plus throwing arm. Denton and Dickey are hitting .316 and .315, respectively, and each have hit five home runs.
The Volunteers have one of the best weekend rotations in the country with Chase Dollander (4-2, 3.93 ERA), Chase Burns (2-1, 4.15 ERA) and Drew Beam (3-1, 2.54 ERA) leading the charge. Dollander came into this season with some of the highest expectations of any player in the country, and while he has had a couple of below-average starts, he still has some of the best stuff in college baseball and has put together a strong season. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 53-to-8 in 34.1 innings pitched and has shown two plus pitches with his fastball and slider. His fastball has been up to 98 mph with excellent shape and ample arm-side run that he has commanded well, while his slider has been his best secondary offering. Burns is a fireballer in his own right with a fastball that has eclipsed triple-digits and a sharp slider that has two-plane break. Beam has the most pitchability of the bunch and is frequently around the strike zone with his low-to-mid-90s fastball that he throws almost two-thirds of the time. The X-factor on the mound for Tony Vitello’s crew is redshirt junior lefthander Zander Sechrist. Sechrist is a soft-tossing lefty who has consistently avoided hard contact all season, to the tune of a 0.52 ERA with 18 strikeouts to one walk in 17.1 innings pitched. As we saw last week with Hunter Hollan, LSU’s only real bugaboo to this point has been quality lefthanded pitching. If Sechrist can chip in three-to-four quality innings out of the bullpen this weekend, he could be the difference maker.
LSU comes into this weekend with a near-spotless record of 22-3 and is the No. 1 team in the country. It is coming off a commanding series win over No. 7 Arkansas, winning two of the three games by at least nine runs, and a 17-5 midweek win over Grambling. The Tigers came into this season with the most hype surrounding a single team in recent memory and have done an excellent job of silencing the outside noise and living up to, and even exceeding, their sky-high expectations.
On offense they are led by the best player in the country and the potential No. 1 overall draft pick, Dylan Crews. Crews has put up video game numbers through 25 games and is hitting a whopping .542 with 10 doubles, nine home runs and, thanks to his 27-to-12 walk-to-strikeout ratio, is getting on base over two-thirds of the time (.667 on-base percentage). At the plate he deploys an extremely advanced approach with strong swing decisions and has a lightning-fast bat with strong wrists and quick hands. Simply put, he is nearly impossible to pitch to. Opposing pitchers could pitch around him, but they would then be met by sophomore third baseman Tommy White, one of the best pure hitters in the 2024 draft class. White is second on the Tigers with a .390 batting average, has laced nine doubles and eight home runs, and leads the team in RBIs with 42. He is a physical specimen with double-plus bat speed and generates big-time whip with his barrel through the strike zone. He is a threat to leave the yard at any moment and can change the game in one swing. True freshman Jared Jones is hitting .352 with eight home runs and has displayed 70-grade raw power in the early going, while veteran Gavin Dugas is hitting .333 with seven home runs of his own, and freshman outfielder Paxton Kling (.333) and junior first baseman Tre’ Morgan (.310) have also been key pieces for the loaded Tigers lineup.
On the mound, it all starts with Paul Skenes. In recent weeks, Skenes has drawn comparisons to former No. 1 overall pick and three-time all-star Stephen Strasburg. This spring Skenes has a perfect 5-0 record, a minuscule 0.72 ERA and an eye-popping strikeout-to-walk ratio of 71-to-7 in 37.1 innings pitched. The 6-foot-6 righthander pitches with clear confidence and no fear, while all three of his offerings (fastball, slider, changeup) are plus pitches. His fastball sits at 96-100 mph with two-seam action at times and is a pitch he commands well to all quadrants of the strike zone. Skenes’ slider is perhaps the best of its kind in this year’s draft class, with plenty of horizontal movement and a miss rate of 60%, and it grades out comfortably as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. His changeup is a 60-grade pitch with sharp, late dive and has a miss rate of 53%. It’s a pitch that he has thrown more in his last couple of outings and it's proven to be extremely effective. Junior righthander Ty Floyd is on track to have the best season of his LSU career and has pitched his way to a 2.05 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 26.1 innings to this point. Freshman Chase Shores has been a huge weapon for Jay Johnson and while his numbers might not be as gaudy as some of the other pitchers on the staff, he has a fastball that has been up to 101 mph and a developing slider. Thatcher Hurd has shown why he’s one of the top sophomore arms in the country, with a 3.91 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 23 innings pitched. His fastball will top out in the upper 90s with great shape and carry, especially when elevated. Hurd’s shorter, cutter-like slider has also been effective, while he will occasionally mix in a curveball with bigger depth. Out of the bullpen, Garrett Edwards (0.87 ERA), Nate Ackenhausen (0.79 ERA) and Christian Little (3.63 ERA) have all been quality contributors.
While going into a hostile environment like Alex Box Stadium is never an easy task, this is a Volunteers team that thrives off being viewed as the villain and embrace being the bad boys of college baseball. Vitello and his staff do an outstanding job of getting the most out of their roster year in and year out, while Johnson and LSU have done the same. Between two star-studded rosters, one of the best atmospheres in college baseball and some of the top 2023, 2024 and 2025 draft prospects facing off against one another, this weekend’s series has all the ingredients to be a blockbuster.