Heading into Tony Vitello’s second season as Tennessee’s head baseball coach, the Vols return all eight pitchers that recorded at least one start from a season ago.
It’s one of the many reasons Vitello believes the pitching staff will be a strength for the Vols this season. After all, he’s the only coach among all Power Five teams to return every pitcher that recorded a win on the roster last season.
“I think it will be, it needs to be and it should be,” Vitello responded when asked last week if the pitching staff would be the strength of the team.
That belief dates back to October, when Tennessee traveled to Atlanta to take on Georgia State in an exhibition game. The Vols won 10-1, but the most pleasing aspect of the game was that the pitching staff – in Vitello’s words – looked like a Frank Anderson pitching staff.
Anderson is considered one of the premier pitching coaches in the country. Throughout his storied coaching career, he’s had 78 pitchers drafted during his stints at Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State, and Houston.
“The way guys operated, the way guys threw strikes, and that has continued,” Vitello explained. “I don’t see that changing into the season. It’ll just be a matter of which guys fill which roles and exactly how good do they do it. But I truly believe they’ll be the strength of the team.”
Garrett Stallings, Zach Linginfelter, and Will Neely will anchor the Vols’ starting rotation in 2019, at least they will to begin the season when UT faces Appalachian State. The three combined for 12 wins last season while Neely tied the SEC lead with three completed games.
Stallings finished second on the team with five wins as a sophomore last season and recorded two saves in 78.2 innings of work. The right-hander threw two complete games in 11 starts and finished with a 4.58 ERA.
As for Linginfelter, he was selected in the 19th round of the MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals following an up-and-down sophomore campaign. The hard-throwing righty ultimately made the decision to return to school to build on his career-high 71 strikeouts.
“We’re leaning towards the guys that have pitched well, and we know what they can do,” Vitello said. “But there’s so much competition among that group that I don’t think anything will be finalized.”
For the first time in a while, Tennessee has options that extend further than the starters. That includes Andrew Schultz, who is reportedly throwing over 100 miles per hour, Chase Wallace who had a strong freshman campaign leading the team with three saves, Sean Hunley, who was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate baseball, left-hander Garrett Crochet, who started 11 games as a true freshman, and fellow southpaw Will Heflin, who pitched 38.1 innings last season.
But the two names that have stood out the most during fall ball and practice have been lefty Redmond Walsh and freshman Camden Sewell.
Last season as a redshirt freshman, Walsh appeared in 16 games out of the bullpen, pitching 17.2 innings. The former Alcoa High School star led the pitching staff with a 2.04 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .243 batting average. In his exit meeting following the season, Vitello flat out told Walsh that he didn’t pitch in as many games as he should have, but he should expect for that to be made up for in 2019.
“Redmond was coming off of a couple different injuries last year, so we didn’t know quite what we were going to get,” Vitello said. “I think he’s established himself. He’s healthier than he’s ever been, and he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in.
“He’s not the biggest guy we’ve got, but if you challenged his self-belief, you’d be astonished at how confident he is, or at least, impressed. He’s going to fill a big role for us. He’s one of those guys we know we can rely on.”
As for Sewell, the Cleveland, Tennessee native has dominated during scrimmages. He’s been electric in his first inning of work but tapers off after that. As a result, Vitello expects to use him out of the pen to begin his college career.
“We see him (Sewell) as an SEC weekend starter,” Vitello said. “When that happens, I’m not able to predict that. A lot of it will be based on how quickly he matures.
“He’s got a bright future here as long as he’ll continue to approach things as professionally as he is, which as a freshman, you wish they all did it that way. He’s one of several we have that do.”
The list of arms available for Anderson and Vitello go on and on. Even a guy like Elijah Pleasants, a right-handed freshman from Clarksville, isn’t getting enough love, as Vitello says he’s looked the best he’s ever looked the last couple of weeks of practice.
But one thing is for certain: Tennessee’s pitching staff is deep enough to make the SEC tournament, and even the NCAA tournament. Those are two accomplishments that the Vols have struck out on in recent years.