Baseball Vols Deemed “Most Surprising Team” in SEC

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(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

For those close to the Tennessee baseball program, the start to the shortened 2020 season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came as no surprise. To outsiders, the Vols were arguably the most surprising team in the country.

Tony Vitello guided the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005 in year two as the Vols’ head skipper last season. After losing just three key pieces off the team that participated in the Chapel Hill Regional, the 2020 club was built for a potential run to the College World Series this season.

“The Volunteers took a big step forward in 2019 by reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005,” D1 Baseball wrote in their 2020 Conference Wrap featuring the SEC. “However, UT was expected to take a slight step back in 2020, or so we thought.

Tennessee returned a near-guaranteed top 15 overall pick in left-handed Garrett Crochet to lead the deepest pitching staff the program has seen in years due to junior college additions.

But it didn’t stop there.

Despite losing Andre Lipcius to the third round of the MLB Draft in 2019, the Vols returned a lineup that was also as deep and talented as its been in years.

Vitello had legitimate competition at each and every position. On the mound, in the field, and at every spot in the lineup – even in the bullpen, as pitchers competed for innings.

With that talent, the Vols made an early statement. They swept the inaugural Round Rock Classic which included a 6-2 win over then-ranked No. 1 Texas Tech, an 8-4 win over a good Houston program, and a 7-2 win over No. 25 Stanford.

Tennessee was 15-2 and a near consensus top 25 team just before SEC play was supposed to begin.

“Tony Vitello’s club, sitting at 15-2 when the season ended, appeared to have staying power,” D1 Baseball lead writer Kendall Rogers wrote as he deemed Tennessee the most surprising SEC baseball program in 2020. “The Vols had just gotten left-hander Garrett Crochet back in the weekend rotation and had some impressive pieces in the rotation with Crochet, Chad Dallas and Chase Wallace leading the way. I also felt great about the bullpen with right-hander Jackson Leath and freshman Drew Gilbert leading the charge.

“Offensively, the Volunteers had versatility throughout the weekend. Houston coach Todd Whitting said early in the season that you could write UT’s lineup 9-1 and it wouldn’t be much different than 1-9. I’d agree with that assessment. Zach Daniels was having a breakout campaign, Alerick Soularie was starting to figure out entering conference play and the bottom of the lineup had some intriguing pieces with Connor Pavolony and others leading the way. Jake Rucker and Jordan Beck also were well on their way to impressive offensive campaigns.”

The stats supported the Vols’ hot start to the season and provided reason for optimism that they were legit.

At the plate, Tennessee ranked first nationally in runs scored (180) and runs per game at 10.6 per contest. It ranked second in home runs (31), on-base percentage (.442), and in slugging percentage (.556). The Vols ranked third in hits (193) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.89), fifth in batting average (.320), and sixth in doubles (43).

On the mound, Frank Anderson’s pitching staff was nearly just as dominant. Tennessee had the fifth-best ERA (2.00) in the country and ranked second in WHIP (0.94), which measures walks plus hits allowed per innings pitched. The group ranked third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.89) and walks allowed per nine innings (2.06), and they were also 16th in hits allowed per nine innings (6.41).

Defensively, the Vols ranked top 20, coming in at No. 17 with a fielding percentage of .981.

“UT should once again be solid in 2021,” Rogers wrote. “But this season had a chance to be a special one.”