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Tennessee Athletics photo / In 12 starts this season for top-ranked Tennessee, freshman pitcher Drew Beam has compiled an 8-0 record and a 2.15 earned run average.

Even as top-ranked Tennessee was enduring its first Southeastern Conference series loss of the season Thursday through Saturday at Kentucky, fifth-year Volunteers baseball coach Tony Vitello was already looking ahead.

The three-game SEC sets are coming to an end after the Vols host Georgia later this week and travel to reigning national champion Mississippi State next week. Then its league tournament time in Hoover, Alabama, followed by the start of NCAA regionals.

"You've got four starters and a bullpen you already trust," Vitello told reporters late Saturday afternoon in Lexington. "I don't want to get arrogant, but I think we're prepared to do four games in a weekend and not necessarily just three."

The Vols (42-6, 20-4 SEC) won a second consecutive Eastern Division title without even playing Sunday, as Vanderbilt's 4-0 victory at Georgia saddled the Bulldogs with an 11th league loss with six conference contests remaining for every SEC program.

Tennessee has spent most of its season with freshman Chase Burns (7-1, 2.25 earned run average) as the Friday starter, sophomore Chase Dollander (6-0, 2.66) as the Saturday starter and freshman Drew Beam (8-0, 2.15) getting the ball each Sunday. When a ball came back to the mound against Alabama on April 16 and struck Dollander on the arm, it sidelined him for 17 days.

Dollander was replaced in the rotation by Blade Tidwell (1-1, 3.18), a starter last year who was projected as the potential staff ace this year but had his season delayed by shoulder soreness.

Burns started Thursday's 13-inning opener and worked four innings before five Vols relievers went the rest of the way. Tidwell worked three innings and Dollander four during Friday's game that wound up spilling into Saturday due to a rain suspension, while Beam pitched four innings in Saturday's scheduled seven-inning game before reliever Redmond Walsh worked the final three.

"I think it's one of these things where we're just going to keep growing," Walsh said Saturday. "You're seeing a lot of guys developing new roles. (Reliever) Mark McLaughlin went for a long stint. Drew Beam is still just unbelievable, and Dollander out of the pen has been just crazy.

"People are becoming better players and understanding themselves, and I think that's where we're going to get better as a pitching staff."

Vitello said that Dollander is headed back to the rotation, so the Vols could be employing the same successful trio these last couple of weekends that they have used for most of the season with Tidwell joining a bullpen that contains Ben Joyce (2-1, 0.84), McLaughlin (2-1, 1.09), Zander Sechrist (4-0, 1.46), Kirby Connell (1-0, 1.52), Will Mabrey (2-0, 1.80), Walsh (3-1, 1.84) and former Cleveland High standout Camden Sewell (4-1, 2.70).

Given that wealth of riches and given that nobody threw more than four innings in Lexington, it's little wonder Vitello is trying hard not to sound too confident when discussing his pitching staff in this stretch run.

"We'll look at how we want to map out what we want to do down the road," he said. "We're assured two more weekends and then an appearance in Hoover, and you never know how many games you're going to play down there, but we've got to map out what we want to do. The end game is to make sure everybody is still relatively fresh and that everyone is getting action.

"Situations will pop up in the postseason that are quirky, so you want to know what you've got."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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