Tennessee, Chase Dollander Shine In Spotlight At SEC Tournament
HOOVER, Ala. – Under the Friday night lights of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, the SEC Tournament produced a heavyweight fight – or a preview of the 2023 draft class, depending on your point of view.
Friday night’s winner’s bracket showdown between Tennessee and Louisiana State lived up to the hype, both in substance and style. The Volunteers defeated the Tigers, 5-2, to advance to Saturday’s semifinals, while LSU must beat Kentucky earlier in the day to force a rematch. With two of the best teams in the conference on the field and 12,215 fans in the stands, the game was a classic SEC Tournament clash that wouldn’t look out of place if it is replayed in Omaha in a few weeks.
Adding to the atmosphere Friday night was the matchup of Tennessee righthander Chase Dollander and LSU center fielder Dylan Crews. Earlier this week, Dollander was named SEC pitcher of the year and Crews earned SEC co-player of the year honors. The sophomores are also two of the early favorites to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft and their matchup delivered on its promise as well.
Crews bats leadoff for the Tigers and in the first at-bat of the game, Dollander got the better of him. He struck out Crews on his way to striking out the side on 14 pitches in the first inning. In their second matchup, Crews flew out to center field. In his third plate appearance, Crews ripped a double to left field that came off his bat at 105 mph.
Dollander said his mindset facing Crews was the same as it always is: attack. It’s worked for Dollander all season and continued to do so Friday. He threw 6.2 innings, struck out nine batters and held LSU to two runs (one earned) on four hits and two walks.
“(Dollander) was the same as he’s been, which is excellent,” coach Tony Vitello said. “Their lineup, no disrespect to anyone else, is different. We kind of had a clash of the titans. They’re going to get them at some point. The key for him was bend but don’t break and I thought he did a nice job of that.”
LSU got both its runs in the fifth inning and Crews was involved in both scoring plays. His double was misplayed in left field, allowing Drew Bianco to score from first base and Crews to reach third on the play. He came home on the next play, when a fielder’s choice and an error allowed him to score.
Tennessee is one of the best fielding teams in the country, ranking seventh with a .982 fielding percentage. Typically, it is the Volunteers’ defenders picking up the pitching staff. But on Friday it was Dollander who picked up his defense. After the second error of the inning, he retired the next seven batters to end his outing.
Dollander held his stuff throughout the night. He was still throwing in the mid 90s in the later innings, even as he approached 100 pitches. Overall, he said he was pleased with his stuff, except his changeup.
“My fastball was playing really well up (in the zone), and my curveball and slider were both there,” he said. “My changeup was iffy, but that’ll happen. It’s hard to have all four pitches in one outing.”
Dollander improved to 9-0, 2.21 and has 99 strikeouts and 11 walks in 69.1 innings this season. He has made three straight quality starts, including throwing six hitless innings at Mississippi State last weekend.
Dollander missed two starts in late April after he was hit in the arm by a line drive in his start against Alabama on April 16. He missed the next two weekends and made two relief appearances before returning to the rotation. He’s certainly gotten back on track now and has built up plenty of momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament next week.
In two games in Hoover, Tennessee has allowed a total of three runs to Vanderbilt and LSU. That kind of pitching, especially what Dollander gave the Volunteers on Friday, is what makes Tennessee so dangerous in the postseason.