Baseball Vols believe games aren’t over until last out

Marvin Westwestwords

Do you believe teams sometimes take on the personality of their coaches? That might explain the success of Tennessee baseball.


The power-hitting Volunteers are talented, scrappy and spirited, fearless in the face of ninth-inning deficits. It seems they honestly believe no game is over until the last out occurs. They have an astounding four walk-off home runs and three other last-swing victories.

Their coach, Anthony Gregory Vitello, 42, comes across as a talented, scrappy, spirited Italian, not the least bit intimidated by rivals, situations, umpires or the MLB draft.

Alas, Vitello’s Volunteers, still improving at 48-16, regional champs and headed for the next level of the NCAA tournament, have created a crisis.

What if rich Texans back up a Brinks truck and unload six sacks of money? Our talented, scrappy, spirited coach might go in search of greener pastures enhanced with still-legal oil wells.

Oh my, Tennessee must not let that happen. Mortgage the farm and beat those forthcoming bandits to the auction. Pay Tony a million and change. Throw in some for great assistants and several million more at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The arena is not bad. It just isn’t excellent. The current idea is to expand it from 4,283 seats, add luxury boxes and glamorize the area so Vitello can recruit more and better players.

Make the preemptive strike! Win the arms race.

There is something to be said for this philosophy in this case. Tennessee has squandered an XL fortune on unfulfilled football potential and buyouts. Paying for production actually makes some sense.

Vitello has done something. He has built a championship contender in a conference loaded with more traditional baseball powers. Tennessee will be host for the upcoming super regional. Sixteen of 64 tournament teams remain in contention. Tennessee made College World Series appearances in 1951, 1995, 2001 and 2005.

Credit where credit is due: This may come as a shock but John Currie, when he was Tennessee athletics director, did something right. Vitello was not his first choice when it was time to replace coach Dave Serrano but what John saw was not a mirage.

Vitello had not been a head coach but he had a rich background – son of a coach, not a star player but an academic all-star, proven assistant for good teams, excellent recruiter, interesting communicator.

I remember what Vitello said four years ago. He understood the challenge that was Tennessee.

“It’s a monster. You’re trying to climb Mount Everest while also trying to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In the SEC, you’re trying to survive each year, not get your brains beat out while trying to build for the future.”

That’s a full notch up from typical coach-speak. Can you imagine Jeremy Pruitt mentioning two great mountains in the same sentence?

Tony Vitello signed on for $493,000 per year. He said the opportunity was a blessing.

Phillip Fulmer, next in line among athletics directors, recognized Vitello skills and accomplishments and gave him a raise – to $580,000 with more to come.

“Impressive doesn’t begin to describe the job Tony has done,” Fulmer said.

“I believe we have one of the nation’s brightest young head coaches. From managing the game, to player development, to recruiting and relating to today’s student-athletes – Tony has a firm grasp on all aspects of leading a major program.

“He’s surrounded himself with an outstanding staff, and we are going to support them as Tennessee baseball continues to climb.”

Danny White, athletics director for now and the future, hasn’t said much of anything. Sometime soon he will tell us about an attractive offer and promised stadium enhancements. Vitello is that good. Tennessee or somebody will pay market value.

In addition to winning games, these Vols have been very entertaining. They have hit 91 homers, second in program history (108 in 1998). They went 20-10 against SEC foes and won the East division. They even had Peyton Manning throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

They swept LSU. Before this season, Tennessee had lost 15 of 16 to the Tigers.

The Vols won one from No. 1 Arkansas and convinced Vanderbilt that there is space in the state for another top team.

There were many highlights. Drew Gilbert had nine hits, six RBI and five runs scored while batting .600 in the sweep at Missouri. His walk-off grand slam against Wright State was a bit more dramatic. His celebratory trip around the bases set a record.

Back in April, UT was trailing Vandy 4-3 in the eighth but Evan Russell solved that little problem. He hit a grand slam. The Vols scored 20 in a romp over Texas A&M. Max Ferguson hit a walk-off homer in the victory over Arkansas.

Shortstop Liam Spence, .353 hitter and one of the best defensive players in the league, and third baseman Jake Rucker (50 RBI) were named all-SEC by league coaches. Spence is from far-away places, Geelong, Australia, and Central Arizona College.

Josh Elander is the Vols’ recruiting coordinator.

Jordan Beck (59 RBI, 14 home runs) qualified as most improved hitter. Catcher Connor Pavolony might be the toughest guy in town.

Pitching depth is the team strength. Attribute at least some of that to coach Frank Anderson. Top pitcher Jackson Leath suffered a hamstring injury in the first inning against Indiana State on Feb. 28 and was finished for the season. The Vols carried on.

Sean Hunley and Redmond Walsh made the bullpen reliable. Blade Tidwell won a spot on the all-SEC freshman squad. Kirby Connell had a 2.95 ERA. Chad Dallas went 10-0 and made a habit of striking out people.

No. 3 in the country is a significant accomplishment. Almost as good was the compliment from Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. He said Tennessee’s baseball personality is very strong.

Corbin also said Tony Vitello is “one hell of a coach.”

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

 

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