Graduate transfer Griffin Merritt has served a lot of roles in his one season on the University of Tennessee baseball team.
Left fielder. Cleanup hitter. Team leader and part-time hero, with his walk-off home runs downing Vanderbilt and Mississippi State at a time when the Volunteers were turning their fortunes around.
Merritt is also the team's Nostradamus.
On April 8, when the Vols were 5-7 in Southeastern Conference play but had just defeated Florida, the 6-foot-2, 233-pounder from Cincinnati said, "If this team just keeps trending upwards, nobody in the country is going to want to see us in their regional if we're not hosting."
Tennessee didn't host an NCAA regional last weekend yet sandwiched 8-1 and 9-2 waxings of Charlotte around a 6-5 topping of Clemson, the NCAA tournament's No. 4 overall seed, in 14 innings. In the two wins over the 49ers, Merritt was a combined 5-for-7 at the plate.
"It might be something that because I've been around it a little bit longer than some of these guys that I know at the end of the year it's about depth," Merritt said Thursday in a news conference when asked to revisit his remark, "and that's something we're fortunate to have a lot of. When teams were playing this past Monday and were stretched a little bit, we would have been fine.
"In that Clemson game, we were ready to play 10 more innings. We would have been completely fine on the mound. That was a really good team in Clemson, but I don't know how much they had left."
Merritt was expected to be a nice addition for the Vols after playing four seasons for his hometown Cincinnati Bearcats and last year becoming the American Athletic Conference player of the year. He will enter Saturday afternoon's super regional opener (3 on ESPNU) at Southern Mississippi hitting .306 with a team-high 18 home runs and with 46 RBIs.
"Griffin has been a leader from day one," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said. "He's just kind of got that mojo and that level of maturity about him."
When asked about Merritt's comments after defeating the Gators two months ago, Vitello wouldn't let him off the hook, as Merritt also said, "Nobody is going to want to play us in Hoover." The Vols went one-and-done at the SEC tournament, getting one-hit in a 3-0 loss to Texas A&M, but nobody has complained about the rest and recovery that resulted from such a quick trip.
"The concept that he brought up did hold true in a regard," Vitello finally admitted. "I think the backbone of that confidence was in our pitching staff."
Tennessee's starting trio of Andrew Lindsey, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam was superb in the final regular-season series at South Carolina, and it was more of the same at the Clemson Regional but with the added relief of Chase Burns and Seth Halvorsen, who combined to throw 141 pitches in the marathon win over the Tigers.
A very different team is heading to Hattiesburg compared the one Merritt played for in early April, and he obviously saw this coming.
"This team was always a good team," Merritt said. "I just think this team had growing pains that maybe the fans weren't used to, especially compared to last year. We had a lot of new faces, and that takes some time. Those lessons and some of those tougher days have built you up for this part of the season. We've been down in games. We've had to come back in games.
"You have days when things don't go your way, but you deal with it and move on, and I think that prepares you better than just smooth sailing."
Sewell 'my guy'
Each weekend at this point of the season could be the last for players without any more eligibility, including Tennessee relief pitcher Camden Sewell.
"That's my guy," Vitello said. "You like the guys who when the game is on the line and they've got the ball in an important situation, you can just stand there and be like, 'I know this kid's character and I know this kid's preparation and I know I am good with whatever happens.' He's one of those guys.
"From day one he's been a contributor. He's pitched in the postseason a ton. We don't win an SEC tournament without him, and he's a joy to be around."
The former Cleveland High School standout enters the super regional with a sparkling 19-3 career record and a 2.73 career earned run average. The 6-4, 185-pounder is 4-0 this season with 27 strikeouts in 22 innings, and he had four strikeouts in two scoreless innings in Sunday's win over Charlotte.
"He'll forever serve as an example of a kid who matured in a lot of different areas off the field and on the field," Vitello said. "The one thing we just can't do is any before and after weight room pictures with Camden and show them to recruits, because we won't get any."
On the moon
Much has been made about Tennessee having to travel to Southern Miss this weekend, with both teams having been No. 2 seeds at their respective regionals.
"We would have loved to be at home, but we were anticipating going on the road," Merritt said. "If they had told us to go to the moon and play, we would go to the moon. We don't really care where we're going to be.
"We're just trying to win baseball games."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.