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When No. 9 Tennessee visited No. 1 LSU on March 30, it was billed as a preview of the College World Series.
And it has happened.
No. 5 national seed LSU (48-15) and unseeded, but rising Tennessee (43-20) will meet in prime time Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) in the opening round of the College World Series at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska. A sellout crowd of 24,505 is expected.
LSU-Tennessee Rematch Not Unexpected
“Not a surprise at all,” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “When you look at the bracket when it comes out, you look at the team in front of you, and then you kind of look at what that first game might be in Omaha. And that’s basically who I anticipated we’d play. Great team. Great talent. It should be a great night for college baseball.”
LSU took that regular season series from Tennessee, two games to one, winning 5-2 and 6-4 before losing 14-7. The Tigers were 24-4 and 6-3, and the Vols left town at 21-8 and 4-5. After that, each team basically went in opposite directions, but they have found themselves at the same destination.
Junior right-hander Paul Skenes (12-2) is expected to start for LSU. He is also expected to either be the first or second pick of the Major League Baseball Draft on July 9 as is his teammate – center fielder Dylan Crews.
Skenes leads the nation with 15.8 strikeouts per game and has 188 on the season in 107 innings. If he strikes out 15 Vols Saturday, he will break the Southeastern Conference record for strikeouts in a season of 202. Former LSU pitcher Ben McDonald has held that mark since 1989. Skenes is also second in the nation in earned run average at 1.77 and is tied for second in wins.
Junior 6-2 right-hander Chase Dollander (7-6, 4.50 ERA) may start for Tennessee. He is listed as the No. 6 pick of the MLB Draft by MLB.com. Dollander has struck out 118 in 86 innings. This was the same matchup on March 30 in Baton Rouge.
College World Series Has Top Pitchers
Skenes struck out 12 with one walk around five hits and one run through seven innings for a no-decision against Tennessee. Reliever Garrett Edwards picked up the win. Dollander went only four and two-thirds innings, allowing four hits and two runs. Seth Halvorsen took the 5-2 loss after allowing a three-run double to LSU’s Jordan Thompson in the eighth.
Tennessee also has 6-4 sophomore reliever/starter Chase Burns (4-3, 4.64 ERA, 2 saves), who relieved Dollander after his last start on Sunday in the Super Regional at Southern Mississippi. Burns is third in the nation with 14.3 strikeouts a game and has 105 in 66 innings on the season.
If that’s not enough pitching for you, the first game Saturday will feature No. 1 Wake Forest and ace right-hander Rhett Lowder (15-0) against No. 8 seed Stanford (44-18) at 2 p.m. on ESPN. Lowder leads the nation in wins and is fourth in ERA at 1.92. MLB.com projects Lowder as the No. 8 pick of the draft.
The Wake Forest-Stanford winner plays the LSU-Tennessee winner at 7 p.m. Monday.
TCU (42-22) and Oral Roberts (51-12) open the CWS at 2 p.m. Friday on ESPN. In the nightcap, No. 2 seed Florida (50-15) will play No. 11 seed Virginia (50-13) at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The Gators have right-hander Hurston Waldrep (9-3, 4.15 ERA), who is projected as the 20th pick of the draft. He is fourth in the nation in strikeouts per game at 13.6.
Tennessee Has Top Pitching To Combat LSU
But what sets apart this LSU-Tennessee matchup is the power vs. power angle.
LSU is No. 2 in the nation in home runs with 133 and in slugging percentage at .569, and the Tigers are No. 5 in scoring with 9.3 runs a game. Crews is third in the country in hitting at .434, and Tommy White is No. 3 in RBIs per game with 1.6.
But Tennessee is No. 2 in the nation in ERA at 3.57 and in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.07. LSU may have Skenes, but the Vols overall staff is better. Tennessee has 6-4 sophomore right-hander Drew Beam (9-4, 3.78 ERA). He shut out Southern Mississippi in the Super Regional title game Monday night, 5-0, with seven strikeouts and a walk through six innings. Burns got the save with four strikeouts in two and two-thirds innings.
“Honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way,” Johnson said. “Making it even more validating is playing the best teams. We had to beat an SEC team in the Super Regional (Kentucky, 14-0 and 8-3). Then we got another SEC team in Game 1 of the College World Series. It’s really exciting.”
No other pair of teams in the country has been ranked No. 1 for more weeks over the last two seasons than LSU and Tennessee. The Vols were No. 1 for virtually the entire season in 2022. The Tigers followed suit this year until the last two weeks of the regular season when Wake Forest passed them.
Tennessee ran away with the SEC in 2021 at 25-5, then won the SEC Tournament. But in one of the biggest upsets in college baseball history, the No. 1 Vols fell at home to Notre Dame in the Super Regional in three games. Notre Dame won 8-6 and 7-3 around a 12-4 loss.
Tennessee Goes Farther With Less
“It was an epic year, but it was a weird weekend,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said in retrospect Monday after winning the Super Regional title.
The Vols opened the 2023 season at No. 2 to LSU’s No. 1. But Vitello said that was too high for his team, and he was proven oh so right as it quickly went south. After getting swept at Arkansas on April 16, Tennessee was 23-13 overall and 5-10 in the SEC.
“I wasn’t trying to undersell the team, but we were not the No. 2 team in the country in February and March,” Vitello said. “But the comment was, ‘We very well could be that team.’ Obviously we’d like to be one better.”
It’s a year later, and Tennessee has that chance after finishing the season 11-4 in the SEC and 20-7 overall since April 16.
“I wish we could have done this in Knoxville in front of our fans because they’ve meant a lot to us,” he said. “But it’s a challenge to win in the postseason, and we had to go do it on the road. No one wants to hear it, but there were a lot of difficult circumstances this group had to overcome and I’m proud of it.”
Volunteers Crave Adversity
This Tennessee team overcame everything to reach Omaha with less talent than the 2022 team that couldn’t. That included losing the first Super Regional game at Southern Mississippi and trailing in the second one.
“It was definitely pretty challenging, but it goes with the theme of our whole team this year,” Tennessee third baseman Zane Denton said. Denton hit a three-run home run in the fifth inning Monday night for a 4-0 lead.
“We want the adversity,” Denton said. “We feel like a lot of things have gone against us all year. But just battling through it together, and we’ll find ourselves where we want to be at the end of the season.”
Tennessee is in Omaha for the sixth time in history and second time in three years. The Vols went 0-2 in 2021 in their first CWS since 2005.
LSU, which has won six national titles, is in Omaha for the 19th time, but first since 2017. Tennessee swept LSU in Knoxville in the 2021 Super Regional.
“Yeah, they’re pumped,” Johnson said upon arrival in Omaha Wednesday. “Lots of picture taking. Lots of smiling. Omaha is the Holy Grail of college baseball.”
The selfies will stop by Saturday.
“I’d say there is a sense of urgency, a fear of loss,” junior first baseman Tre Morgan said. “A fear of once the season ends, having to say goodbye.”