Tennessee’s Blade Tidwell Builds Momentum With Solid Start

Image credit: Tennessee righthander Blade Tidwell (Photo courtesy of Tennessee)

HOOVER, Ala. – Incessant rain this week has made a mess of the SEC Tournament schedule and delayed No. 1 Tennessee’s debut in the tournament until Thursday. The Volunteers made sure the wait was worth it, as they routed Vanderbilt, 10-1, to advance in the winner’s bracket.

The win was Tennessee’s 50th of the season and its fourth in four games against its in-state rival. This is just the third time in program history the Volunteers have won at least 50 games in a season and the first 50-win season since 1995. They haven’t beaten the Commodores four times in one season since 1994.

Those are significant accomplishments for the program as the Volunteers continue to make 2022 a season that will long be remembered in Knoxville. But the most important development Thursday was the Volunteers’ performance on the mound.

Five Tennessee pitchers combined to hold Vanderbilt to one run on five hits and four walks. The Volunteers retired the final 10 batters of the game, thwarting any potential comeback.

It all started on the mound with righthander Blade Tidwell. He was coming off an electric relief outing last weekend at Mississippi State, when he struck out five batters in three perfect innings. Thursday, he made his return to the rotation and was solid, if not as dominant. He struck out three batters in 4.1 innings and held Vanderbilt to one run on three hits and three walks.

Tidwell still had his big stuff, running his fastball into the mid 90s and mixing in a good slider. His control was not as good as it can be, however.

“I thought he came out today, was kind of feeling for some pitches, but he got in his rhythm, and he definitely started making some really good pitches to some really good hitters,” catcher Evan Russell said. “As long as he can keep the momentum going in the right direction, we’ll be in good shape.”

Tidwell missed the first half of the season due to shoulder soreness and he’s still working his way back to his peak. He’s still thrown just 28.1 innings this season and is 2-1, 2.54 with 41 strikeouts and 11 walks. Thursday was his second-longest outing of the season and importantly showed he can be an option as a starter in the NCAA Tournament.

“He needed to show he could start because against Mississippi State, he was arguably—you could say he was the best reliever for both teams and both teams got a lot of good arms,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. “Then, tonight, he started against a team that played really well to beat Mississippi and is dynamic throughout the lineup. We needed that.

“So, we’ll see what’s going on moving forward, but now that he’s back in a rhythm and a routine and he’s gotten himself where he’s more healthy than ever—I said it when we went out there and talked on the mound when he was coming out of the game, now we’ve kind of got a weapon that we can choose to use as we see fit.”

Tennessee has plenty of weapons in the bullpen as well, and Vitello went to a few of them Thursday. Kirby Connell threw 1.2 innings, scattering two hits and a walk. Camden Sewell got four outs and struck out two batters, Will Mabrey got two outs and fireballer Ben Joyce came on for the final three outs, touching 101 mph.

Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson are keenly aware that in the NCAA Tournament the Volunteers may well need four starters at some point and has worked to develop options beyond the three starters they have used the most this season—righthanders Drew Beam, Chase Burns and Chase Dollander. They’ve worked to stretch Tidwell out since he returned and have extended Joyce as well.

Tidwell was slated to be Tennessee’s ace this season after an outstanding freshman season in the rotation on last year’s College World Series team. He was voted a Preseason All-American by MLB scouting departments and projected as a first-round pick. But his injury kept him out until the end of March and Tennessee’s rotation by then had developed into the best in the nation. The reintroduction of Tidwell has given the Volunteers a spoil of riches on the mound.

Going forward, it’s easy to imagine Tidwell as a starter or in a relief ace role. When he aired it out for three innings at Mississippi State, he looked like the kind of dominant relief ace that could be a difference maker in the postseason. But it’s also easy to imagine him as a starter.

Vitello said Tidwell is ready for whatever role they want to use him in.

“Where he’s been great is he’s been the one guy, probably because he’s more comfortable, he’s been around the program more than those other three guys, it’s just been, ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it to make life easier on those three guys and also to be a good teammate,’ ” Vitello said. “He just wants to win.”

Tennessee has done plenty of winning so far this season and with Tidwell getting closer to full strength, the Volunteers only look more dangerous as the NCAA Tournament approaches.

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