The end: Great UT baseball team falls short

Marvin Westwestwords

An old saying was preserved for this occasion: The better the team, the bigger the splatter when it falls on its face.

Somebody famous – Yogi or Grantland Rice or Bear Bryant – was probably first to say that. It remains totally true.

Tennessee baseball, top team in the college world, lost two out of three to Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, of all places, with enthusiastic overflow crowds doing everything possible to save the season.

Great pitching, the barrage of home runs, the 57-9 record says “great year.”

I say congratulations.

Losing the way to Omaha, falling short of the College World Series, missing a chance at the national championship was a crushing disappointment, a shocking upset.

I say tough luck, get ’em next time.

Elsewhere, throughout the Southeastern Conference and much of America, the multitudes no doubt cheered or at least laughed. The No. 1 Vols were perceived as villains. They were loud, demonstrative, brash and at times profane. They set records for arrogant bat flips. They celebrated home runs with a cocky king-of-shenanigans costume for the sluggers, a pink “Daddy” hat and a long mink coat.

There were a lot of home runs to celebrate.

Those who delivered doubles or triples covered their face and kneeled down to make-believe baseball gods. Some critics were irritated by such antics.

Now and then, Tennessee baseball ran out of control. Coach Tony Vitello bumped an umpire during a debate and drew a four-game suspension.

There was a repulsive base-running incident.

There was another irritation: The Vols were better, stronger, tougher and fiercely competitive – until they weren’t.

Notre Dame didn’t just defeat Tennessee. Tennessee helped it happen. Best player Drew Gilbert was symbolic of the collapse.

In the opener of the three-game Super Regional, Gilbert launched a volatile protest of the umpire’s strike call of a low pitch. He included some foul language. He was ejected and suspended for Game 2.

Pitching coach Frank Anderson got too close to that fire, was ejected and suspended for three games.

In do-or-die Game 3, Gilbert threw behind an Irish runner. First baseman Luc Lipcius threw the ball into left field. Lipcius, outstanding power hitter, was showtime during the season. His last throw was very unfunny.

Tennessee contributed three unearned runs.

Late in the game, the aggressive Gilbert tried to move up on a Notre Dame wild throw and was thrown out at second base – with the Vols four runs behind. That doesn’t happen in Little League.

There were other strange incidents. Notre Dame’s David LaManna had one previous home run this season. In the seventh inning, he hit a two-run homer that really mattered.

The very next batter, Jack Brannigan, hit a home run.

Vitello, postgame, said all the right things. He congratulated Notre Dame. He credited the Irish with causing some of his bad decisions. He said the game obviously came down to the last three innings.

“They executed.”

He didn’t say much about the 57 victories but his face sent the message. His love for his team showed.

“We have some really good kids and a couple of maniacs.”

There was so much to like about these Volunteers. They gave exceptional effort. They never gave up. They set records. They won 23 games in a row.

They put leashes on big-dog opponents. They swept South Carolina and Missouri in Knoxville and swept Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Florida and Mississippi State on the road. If you are keeping scores, they inflicted a no-mercy 27-2 setback on the Bulldogs.

The Vols were run-away winners of the regular season and they won the league tournament.

The upcoming major league draft will validate how talented was this team. It was favored to win the national title. It absolutely had to get to Omaha.

This failure will hurt longer than the football bowl loss or the early out in NCAA basketball. This team had an attitude but it was really good.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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