Vitello's Vols having to battle more 'creeping' tension

It's hard to imagine a team that has created a more stress-free week than Tennessee's top-ranked baseball program.

The Volunteers host Belmont on Tuesday and play Thursday through Saturday at Mississippi State having already wrapped up their first Southeastern Conference regular-season championship since 1995. Taking things further, the Vols (45-7, 22-5 SEC) could lose all four games this week and go two-and-out at next week's league tournament in Hoover, Alabama, and still be assured of hosting an NCAA regional and an NCAA super regional provided they advance.

Yet even the mention of the postseason can bring unwanted tension, which Tennessee fifth-year coach Tony Vitello believes is natural and therefore unavoidable in the days and weeks ahead.

"This time of year, guys are going to get a little too tense and maybe make a mistake," Vitello said after Saturday afternoon's 8-3 loss to Georgia in Tennessee's SEC home finale. "We've all been to a little league park where parents love their kids, and everybody should be having fun and having a hot dog and a beer, but it's the most insane, intense environment ever, and possible fights break out and stuff like that.

"That sort of tension is in the air because playoff time is creeping up, and that's what all of these guys on all these teams need to be cautious of. It will pop up, and they can be good feelings to have, but you have to keep them in check and then just play ball."

Tennessee has split its past eight SEC games against Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia after roaring out to an 18-1 league start, but Vitello also has suspended the weekend rotation of freshman Chase Burns, sophomore Chase Dollander and Drew Beam in order to limit their innings while also giving Blade Tidwell and Ben Joyce opportunities to start.

Whether that pays off down the road remains to be seen, but this week certainly won't be a gauge.

"You can stand here one day and look smart, and you can stand here another day and look stupid," Vitello said. "The freshmen could have thrown more this weekend, but I would prefer to not ask them to shoulder the load every week of the season. These kids are a part of what will be in the history books for a long time with that lost spring and summer or however long that thing lasted.

"Even without that, you just would like to manage the whole thing so, wherever we're at, we can hand these guys the ball for the last time this particular season and they're able to run through the finish line as opposed to stumbling."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.