This time last season, Tennessee’s baseball team was three victories into a 12-0 Southeastern Conference start that set a new league standard.
The current Volunteers are languishing out of the SEC gate, having been swept last weekend at Missouri by the combined score of 23-6, so what gives? Especially now that there are more Tennessee baseball fans than ever following the College World Series appearance of 2021 and last year’s surge to a No. 1 ranking and a 57-9 record?
“Without disrespecting anybody, some fans are new to college baseball or new to following our program because of last year’s team or the years prior, which is awesome,” Vols sixth-year coach Tony Vitello said Thursday on a Zoom call. “We love it, but as they get to understand the landscape of our game, there is a lot of parity in college baseball, and you don’t just go to Omaha because you wish it or because you play in the SEC or you win some games.
“There are challenges, but fans don’t want to hear that, and I don’t want to hear that, either. You want to see success, and this team is capable of success, but it’s going to be with a style that is way different from last year.”
This season’s Vols are 16-6 overall and ranked No. 12 in the D1 Baseball poll, but that ranking is mostly due to last year’s performance and starting out at No. 2 behind LSU. Tennessee has assembled most of its 16 victories against the overwhelmed likes of Alabama A&M, Dayton, Charleston Southern, Gonzaga and Morehead State and is 0-5 against opponents from Power Five conferences.
Texas A&M, which went to the College World Series last year and is currently ranked No. 21, visits Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend. The Aggies went 2-2 last June in Omaha, defeating the same Notre Dame team that stunned the Vols in the Knoxville Super Regional.
Tennessee’s weekend rotation of Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam is back from a season ago, but Dollander and Burns were roughed up at Missouri. Beam took a loss as well, but three Vols errors factored more into that setback.
Vitello admitted Thursday that his starting pitchers tried to be too perfect against the Tigers, which could be a lingering effect given that Jordan Beck, Drew Gilbert, Luc Lipcius, Trey Lipscomb and Evan Russell are no longer around as the veteran position players.
“We do have our three weekend starters back, but we also are fighting a lot of battles that last year’s team did not have to fight,” Vitello said, “and it was also a different group of guys fighting those battles. It was a no-doubt, eight-man lineup in the field positionally with some really good options at the DH spot that fluctuated a little bit.
“When our kids came to the park, they knew what they were going to do, and we knew who was going to do it for us. It was, ‘How good can you be?’ This year, we’re still trying to get some answers to some questions and become the best version of this team that we can be. We haven’t done that yet, and it’s different.”
Vitello singled out fifth-year senior relief pitcher Camden Sewell as one of this year’s leaders, though the former Cleveland High School standout had a delayed start to his season. Fifth-year senior outfielder Christian Scott is another, according to Vitello, who added that the Vols are deep enough into this season that newcomers no longer should be using their shorter stints in Knoxville as a crutch from a leadership standpoint.
“This is 2023. It’s not 2021 or 2020,” Vitello said. “We’re on our journey right now, and, heck, yeah, I wish there had been some things different along the way.”
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.