ATHENS — Georgia baseball headed to Knoxville for a three-game series against SEC East Division champ Tennessee understanding the assignment.
“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment,” said UGA junior Connor Tate, who leads the team with a .354 batting averaged.
“I feel like we’ll play a lot better when everyone is into the game and there’s a lot of pressure on us,” he said. “We have to calm down and get the job done.”
The No. 22-ranked Bulldogs (32-16, 13-11 SEC) aim to silence the most talked-about crowd in collegiate baseball, take down the No. 1 team, and improve the chances Georgia can host an NCAA regional.
The Vols (43-6, 20-4) won’t make it easy, boasting a gaudy 31-2 home record and the nation’s best Team ERA (2.26) with flame-throwing reliever Ben Joyce and his 105.5 mph fastball.
Beyond the talent, Tennessee plays with an unmistakable attitude, relishing opportunities to intimidate opponents.
“I don’t think anybody, including our fan base, are afraid to be the villains,” outfielder Evan Russell said this week in a News-Sentinel article authored by Mike Wilson last season
“I think that’s what makes this place special is that starting with our coaching staff and our players, we enjoy getting in a fight, and we enjoy the close games. We enjoy the competition.”
Beyond all of that, Georgia coach Scott Stricklin sees the talent.
“They just have power arm after power arm, and then you look at the lineup, and they’re older like a lot of people,” Stricklin said. “It’s a complete lineup and it’s a loaded pitching staff, and they have the mentality they are going to win every single game they play.”
The three-game series starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday (TV: ESPNU) with games at 5:30 p.m. on Friday (SEC Network) and 1 p.m. on Saturday (SEC Network-plus).
Lindsey Nelson Stadium is sold out for the remainder of the season, with standing room only tickets sold 90 minutes before each game.
A raucous Big Orange crowd will be eager to get the Vols back on their winning ways after Kentucky became the first team to win a season series with UT last weekend in Lexington.
“The fans are on top of you, they’ve done a nice job of bringing in more people down the left-field line,” Stricklin said, asked to describe the Lindsey Nelson Stadium environment. “It’s going to be a raucous crowd, it’s all field turf, the ball will go a little quicker off the turf.
“The Crowds are filling it up and they have a lot of energy, and the team is feeding off that. It’s a really good atmosphere, it’s a home-field advantage, for sure.”
Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello has quickly become one of the biggest names in the sport, turning around the once downtrodden UT program, and at times making a spectacle of himself.
Vitello, in his fifth year in Knoxville, served a four-game suspension earlier this season after chest-bumping an umpire.
Tennessee players, meanwhile, are known to play with great energy that can spill over into animated behavior.
Cole Tate, Connor Tate’s twin, said that’s been the nature of the Vols’ program.
“I feel like they’ve always been an upbeat team, they are always going to play to the hype,” Cole Tate said. “So if we can just stay within ourselves and get ahead, I feel we have a very good chance of winning.”
Stricklin has seen it before, and he understands how and why Tennessee baseball does what it does, and with unprecedented efficiency.
“They play with a lot of confidence, and they should, they are really good, they are talented,” Stricklin said. “They play with a chip on their shoulder and a lot of energy. The only thing you can do is give that energy back, have energy, have focus and bring your best baseball with you.”