What's left for Tony Vitello and the Vols? Win the whole (bleeping) thing – Saturday Down South

The SEC Tournament ended the same way the SEC baseball season ended, which was essentially the same way the SEC baseball season began. The Tennessee Volunteers, picked to finish in the middle of the league before the season, continued Tony Vitello’s quest for dominance by basically going wire-to-wire as the best team in the conference and in the nation. What’s left for the Vols? To echo Roger Dorn in the movie Major League, only to win the whole (bleeping) thing.

It is nothing less than astonishing that Tennessee’s climb has been as rapid or as complete as it has been. Vitello inherited a Tennessee program that hadn’t been to the College World Series since 2005 and had only made the NCAA Tournament field 3 times between 1997 and 2017, when Vitello was hired. UT hadn’t won an SEC Tournament since 1995 and was basically an afterthought in the league. After the end of the Rod Delmonico era in 2007, UT’s next two coaches both posted career sub-.500 records in Knoxville.

Enter Vitello, whose Vols barely surpassed .500 in 2018, but then won 40 games and made an NCAA Regional in 2019. After the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Vitello led the Vols to 50 wins and the College World Series last season. This year, UT began the season ranked in 5 of the 6 major NCAA polls, but no higher than 16th in any of them. On March 28, UT — in the midst of a 23-game winning streak — was officially No. 1 in all 6 polls. Half of the polls dropped UT to 2nd after the Vols (gasp) lost a weekend series, but by the following week, all 6 polls again had the Vols on top. It’s been that kind of season.

This UT squad has batted .308, blasted 141 homers, and finished 90 runs ahead of 2nd-place LSU in overall runs scored. Drew Gilbert’s .385 mark leads the SEC, and Trey Lipscomb’s 77 RBIs similarly tops the conference. Jorel Ortega or Luc Lipcius would each be the best hitter on most teams in the SEC. But pitching was expected to be UT’s shaky spot.

Not so much.

The Vols’ 2.35 ERA didn’t just lead the league, it led it by more than 1.5 per game. UT’s 641 strikeouts were 57 ahead of 2nd-place Vanderbilt. Opponents hit .193 against UT. Chase Dollander’s 9 wins and 2.21 ERA are atop the league standings, but teammates Drew Beam and Chase Burns were 2nd and 3rd in the SEC in ERA. Ben Joyce’s 105+ mile per hour smoke defies belief. UT is the best hitting and best pitching team in the nation. And that’s how you go 53-7, claim No. 1 for most of the year, and dominate the SEC Tournament.

The SEC final was an odd game, with UT breaking through a scoreless tie with a 4-run 5th inning, highlighted by a 2-strike, bases-clearing double from Gilbert. A pair of RBI doubles in the 6th, with Lipcius’ tacking on 2 runs, extended UT’s lead to 7-0. Florida trimmed UT’s lead to 7-3 in the 8th, and got within 8-5 in the 9th, but the tying run never came to the plate. Camden Sewell, who is UT’s 5th option as a starting pitcher, shut the Gators out for the first 5 innings to all but put the title to bed.

When the last fly ball fell into left fielder Seth Stephenson’s glove, the coronation was complete and official. Tennessee spent the 2022 season head and shoulders above the SEC, indeed, head and shoulders above college baseball.

From a 23-game winning streak to the tourney title (winning by a combined 35-10 score), UT has made good on the promise hoped for when Vitello was hired in the summer of 2017.

The Vols are SEC baseball’s big dog. Maybe college baseball’s big dog.

From reaching the NCAA Tournament to reaching Omaha to being the sport’s top team, there’s only one hurdle left. Last year’s Arkansas squad demonstrates the inherent difficulties in claiming the College World Series crown for even the sport’s clear top squad. But if anybody is equipped for the fight, it’s UT. They’ve met all the prior challenges, so it’s time to move on to the one last and greatest one.

#model #modeling selected by Livio Acerbo – original source here