The 2021 Tennessee baseball team brought the Vols back to national prominence, returning to the College World Series and winning the SEC east in the process.
The 2022 Tennessee baseball team has elevated the Vols to a whole new level. Despite losing two weekend starting pitchers and four starting infielders, the Vols have been even better this season.
Tennessee is outscoring opponents 403-101 while posting a miraculous 39-3 record in 42 games. The Vols are beating opponents by an average score of 9.6-2.3.
As good as the 2021 team was, they beat opponents by an average score of just 7-4.3.
So, what’s the difference between Tony Vitello’s fourth and fifth teams in Knoxville.
“The difference between last year’s team and this team, we have a little more talent this year,” Tennessee second baseman Jorel Ortega said. “Last year’s team just wanted it more, I guess. Or more grind players. This year … pitching we got three probably first rounders and in the starting lineup in the whole weekend we have guys one through nine just banging the ball around. It’s pretty special to be a part of this team.”
Tennessee ranked second in the SEC in earned run average last season, but the Vols did it without top end pitching talent. Will Heflin didn’t pursue a professional baseball career, and while Chad Dallas has a professional career ahead of him he was a fourth round pick without overpowering stuff.
However, Tennessee has four potential first round draft picks in its pitching staff this season. Friday night starter Chase Burns has the talent to go R1P1 in the 2024 MLB Draft.
Combine that with a much deeper bullpen in 2022 and a really effective pitching staff has taken a another step forward.
Tennessee’s 2021 lineup could beat opponents one through nine just like the 2022 lineup, but maybe not “banging the ball” the way the way Ortega described.
In Tennessee’s, 17-4, series opening win over Auburn the Vols hit six home runs to push their season total to 100. That’s two more home runs than the 2021 Tennessee team hit in 26 less games.
That’s not an indictment on the 2021 Vols, but a statement of how absurd the offensive numbers the 2022 Vols are putting up.
Tennessee is on pace to hit 162 home runs if they played 68 games again this season. 162 home runs is the second most in a season in NCAA history, one home run ahead of the 1988 BYU team and 26 home runs behind the 1997 LSU team for the top spot.
The Vols have five hitters with double digit home runs to date, but also have elite depth. 13 Tennessee players have gone deep this season and 11 have hit at least four long balls.
“It just shows our depth,” Ortega said. “We got guys on the bench that can put up numbers like the way we are right now and they’re not even playing cause there’s only nine spots on the field. That’s a good problem to have. Whenever one of us gets hurt — hopefully that doesn’t happen — but we got guys that can do the job even better.”
There’s no greater example of that than freshman Blake Burke. Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello called Burke his most talented hitter earlier this season but the first baseman can’t find much playing time in a loaded lineup.
But earning a pinch hit at-bat last night, Burke hit the third of Tennessee’s six home runs. Ortega said the no doubter “went about 500 feet” and while it went just 435 feet it showed the embarrassment of riches on this Tennessee roster.
The 2022 Tennessee Vols have improved upon a strong 2021 season, but the only improvement they care about won’t be answered until June. The Vols want to get back to Omaha and collect wins in this trip to middle America.