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Tennessee Looking To ‘Play Good Baseball’ At SEC Tournament

Tennessee heads to the 2022 SEC Tournament in Hoover without much to play for on paper. The Vols have proved their ability this season, posting a 47-9 (25-5 SEC) record and have all but locked up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The importance of the SEC Baseball Tournament is widely discussed amongst the conference’s fans and media alike. Last season provided a perfect example with Florida and the Vols run-ruling Mississippi State in Hoover before the Bulldogs turned around and won the program’s first National Championship.

So, what are the Vols looking to accomplish in Hoover?

“In my mind it’s, play good baseball,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said on Tuesday. “That’s three very boring words, but it’s kind of what’s stuck in my mind in particular and what I’ve gotten out of our few conversations we’ve had as a coaching staff with it. I would say postseason experience would be number two on the list for younger guys. It’s just different. … It’s just different to experience this SEC Tournament and it is like a playoff vibe for a regional or anything that would follow that. I think dipping your toes in the water there for those young guys would be the other thing.”

Tennessee leans on a handful of talented freshmen including starting pitchers Drew Beam and Chase Burns. Even amongst the multi-year players on Tennessee’s roster, many haven’t played big-time postseason games.

SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander’s only postseason experience was in the 2021 SunBelt Tournament. Two of Tennessee’s best hitters Trey Lipscomb and Jorel Ortega didn’t have a single at-bat in last season’s NCAA Tournament.

After Dollander, Burns and Beam started last weekend at Mississippi State, Tennessee’s “plan” is to start Blade Tidwell in its first game of the SEC Tournament Wednesday.

That’s still subject to change and Tennessee’s pitching rotation could be in limbo this weekend due to poor projected weather in Alabama. With the SEC scheduling four games a day at the Hoover Met, it doesn’t take much to throw off the schedule.

In fact, thunderstorms radically delayed games on Tuesday, forcing the Auburn versus Kentucky nightcap to get moved to Wednesday morning. While the Vols were projected to begin tournament play at 5:30 ET Wednesday, they’ve already been pushed back a time slot with more rain in the forecast.

“Routines are nice, but you can’t be a slave or owned by your routines because, like this week, for instance, rain is going to interfere or at least lightning will at some point with the schedule,” Vitello said. “Playoff time in particular, you have to always be on your toes. In a perfect world we would keep things in sync with what we had on at Mississippi State and that would be Dollander on Thursday, Burns would be set up for Friday — which is an if we’re around game — and then Saturday for Beam. I would be honest with you and tell you what we’d like to do before we leave Hoover is get each one of those guys in a game. A lot of that will be dictated by how game one goes and then game two and so on and so forth.”

See Also from RTI: Where Tennessee Baseball Projects In NCAA Tournament Entering Conference Tournament

While Tennessee doesn’t have a ton to play for on paper, players like Drew Gilbert and Evan Russell don’t need additional motivation, competition is enough for them to want to win.

The Vols do have an extra bit of motivation, however, losing in the SEC Tournament Championship to Arkansas a season ago. Has the championship loss been a talking point amongst Tennessee players entering the week?

“There’s probably a little bit of that,” Vitello admitted. “There hasn’t been talk around me, there may have been talk amongst the guys, and you’d be crazy if you were on that team to experience — dude, I’m just telling you the national anthem is insane, our fans showed out. To match Arkansas’ baseball fanbase is an insane deal within itself as well, and then the game. You wouldn’t be a competitor if you didn’t have that in the back of your mind a little bit, but I haven’t heard and scuttle bug and I think this group has really almost gone out of their way to carve out the niche of ‘we’re the 2022 team’. Last year’s team was fun. We have guys from last year’s team. People really liked last year’s team. It was successful, but last year is the phrase I keep bringing up that’s attached to that. This is the here-and-now group. It’s amazing. Some of it organically happened but they also had an edge to them early in their time together of ‘we’re tired of hearing about last year. This is this year’s group.’”

The 2022 Tennessee Volunteers baseball team has created its own identity, posting the best regular-season record in program history while claiming the school’s first regular-season SEC Championship since 1995. That group is looking to “play good baseball” this week in Hoover and hoping to end another 27-year championship drought in the process.

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