Kansas City Royals 2022 Projected Lineup
Tony Vitello and the Tennessee baseball program have checked a lot of boxes in its five-year rebuild out of the dumpster of the Southeastern Conference.
A return to the SEC and NCAA Tournament? Checked off in 2019. Have a player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft? Checked off in 2020. First SEC East title since 1997? First SEC Tournament win in over a decade? A return to the College World Series? Inking a top five recruiting class? All checked off in 2021.
Vitello and the Vols have distinguished themselves as a top program in the SEC once again. The 23-1 start to the 2022 season proves what those in Knoxville already knew — last season was no fluke.
But there’s still boxes left to be checked off and the Vols get another crack at one this weekend.
Instate rival Vanderbilt has been one of the nation’s best programs since Tim Corbin took over 20 years ago. The Commodores have two National Championships and have two more trips to the title game in the last decade.
For the rapid elevation of Tennessee’s program in the last half-decade, Vanderbilt is still the gold standard for college baseball in the “Volunteer State” and Vitello’s Vols are yet to knock them off in a weekend series.
“We’re in a position where we’re trying to win as many SEC games as possible,” Vitello said Wednesday. “As far as that particular matchup I just know last year on Sunday — the last time we played that team — we did not play very well at all. And then the last game we played in that stadium on Sunday we actually played very well. … The perspective I have because I was answering some of John’s (Wilkerson) questions, it’s very similar to last weekend in my opinion. … Similar talk and juice headed into this weekend. Hopefully the experience from last week helps this week.”
Tennessee’s fifth-year head coach downplayed the importance of the weekend series — as you’d expect entering a regular season weekend. But to be the best, you have to beat the best.
And don’t kid yourself, there’s a desire to be the best inside the Lindsey Nelson Stadium clubhouse and coach’s offices that burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. To get there, the Vols have to surpass their foe 180-miles to the west in Nashville.
Despite winning every weekend series since Vitello took over, the Commodores haven’t dominated Tennessee in recent years. Tennessee salvaged weekend series in 2018 and 2019 with Sunday victories to avoid the sweep before dropping two-out-of-three in a hotly contested series last April at Lindsey Nelson Stadium
“I remember it was exciting and got a little chippy,” Tennessee sophomore pitcher Blade Tidwell said of last season’s meeting. “It was close and will be a good one this weekend.”
Evan Russell’s three home-run performance pushed Tennessee past Vanderbilt in game two of last year’s series before the Vols laid an egg in a 10-4 Sunday beatdown.
The poor performance was one of the few failures of the 2021 Tennessee team and is likely in the back of a number of Vols’ minds as they head into this weekend.
On paper, Vanderbilt needs success this weekend more than Tennessee. The Commodores dropped two-out-of-three to South Carolina last weekend and have failed to find the consistency and pitching that got the 2021 Commodores to the College World Series final.
Tennessee — on the other hand — enters the weekend 6-0 in SEC play, riding a program-best 16-game win streak into the weekend’s top-10 tilt. The Vols could drop two-out-of-three again this weekend and still be in prime position to win the conference.
However, the pressure is on Tennessee and not Vanderbilt this weekend. Pressure to back up its newly found No. 1 ranking, but more importantly, pressure to check off another box in the resurgence of Tennessee baseball.