Wiedmer: These Baseball Vols Have “Natty” Written All Over Them

  • Saturday, June 22, 2024
  • Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer
Mark Wiedmer

Back in the fall, months before the University of Tennessee baseball team began humbling most every opponent in sight, it would occasionally play intrasquad games to sharpen its skills for the spring season.

And sometimes during those games, ace reliever Kirby Connell, now known as “Vollie Fingers” for his distinctive Rollie Fingers-style ‘stache, would square off against the best offense in college baseball.

On Friday, during a pregame press conference for the start of tonight’s College World Series best-of-three final series against Southeastern Conference brother Texas A&M (7:30 on ESPN), Connell was asked what that was like, facing all those booming bats.

“It was definitely hard,” he said.

“You’ve got a lot of guys, 1 through 9 … you can’t throw them anything because you know they can leave the yard whenever they want. You’re trying to help yourself out in the fall because you want to be able to throw in the spring. But, no, it was tricky.”

“You know they can leave the yard whenever they want.” Soak that in for a minute. Numbers 1 through 9. Now imagine dealing with that three or four or five times within a game.

No wonder A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle said of the Vols on Friday during the Aggies’ pregame presser:.”Tennessee is far and away the best team I’ve seen outside of our team this year. Pitching, defense, so physical. So well-coached.”

And all those points are true. The Vols pitchers have a team earned run average of 3.87. They’ve committed but 56 errors through 70 games, 58 of those 70 games winding up as victories.

And should the Big Orange beat A&M twice to win the CWS, it will become the first SEC team in history to win 60 games.

But for all its other positives, it’s the hitting that makes this team special. Really special. After all, UT can count five players with 20 or more home runs, beginning with leadoff hitter Christian Moore’s 33. Billy Amick has 23. Blake Burke, Dylan Dreiling, Kavares Tears have 20 apiece. Overall, the Vols lead the nation with 178 homers. They’ve scored 642 runs to date, which averages out to a ridiculous 9.17 runs a game.

Certainly, A&M has its outstanding numbers as well. Its team ERA of 3.80 is slightly better than UT’s. The Aggies have scored almost as many runs as the Vols on the season _ 8.6 per game. Their pitching is actually much more impressive in the CWS, having surrendered but three runs total in three games. UT has given up 14 total, though that’s somewhat misleading, since the Vols gave up 11 to Florida State in the opening come-from-way-behind 12-11 thriller, then just three more runs in a 6-1 win over North Carolina and a 7-2 rematch win over FSU.

And to be fair to the Aggies, just as they narrowly beat Florida 3-2 in their opening win, they thoroughly dominated the Gators 6-0 to reach the final series against Tennessee.

In almost any other scenario, you’d have to like A&M’s chances to prevail in its quest to win its first national championship before Tennessee wins its first natty. Good pitching usually tops good hitting.

But these Vols have been special all year at the plate, and in their only previous game against the Aggies in the SEC Tournament, they won 7-4 in an elimination game. Then, like tonight, A&M will start ace Ryan Prager. On that day in Birmingham, Prager pitched just 2.1 innings, giving up three hits and one run.

It says here that tonight will be worse for him. It says here the Vols will prevail both tonight and Sunday afternoon to sweep the series and hang a CWS banner on Rocky Top.

It also says here that over a decade ago, when Schlossnagle was building quite a program at Texas Christian University, he made a pretty good hire when he chose current UT coach Tony Vitello to recruit for the Horned Frogs.

“Tony, you could see his energy and passion,” said Schlossnagle on Friday. “Obviously a super intense guy. So he was fully prepared to run his own program, and he’s done a great job. And when you go there (to Knoxville) and watch, experience a three-game series there, it’s not just the baseball stuff. It’s everything else he’s done a good job with, which is what I think the best coaches do. It’s the game environment. It’s promoting your program. I think the best coaches do that, and Tony’s done a great job of that.”

Another UT coach who did a great job of that, maybe the best job in the history of the school, was the late Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt.

It’s instructive that when Vitello was asked, in a dream-come-true world, whom he’d like to have throw out the ceremonial first pitch tonight, he answered, “If you get one pick, it’s Pat Summitt.”

Having reached the College World Series for the third time in four years, if you got one pick to choose the current UT coach in any sport that’s most likely to mirror Summitt’s remarkable career, you would have to choose Vitello.

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Mark Wiedmer can be reached at mwiedmer@mccallie.org

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