HOOVER, Ala. — Drew Gilbert was going through a Drew Gilbert slump, that is to say a short one, when Florida intentionally walked Jordan Beck to face the All-SEC centerfielder with two-outs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a one-run game.
Gilbert struck out and grounded out in his first two at-bats a day after striking out twice and recording a pair of weak-struck hits that weren’t the product of good at-bats.
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello gave Gilbert a short, and effective, piece of advice when the SEC’s batting leader walked to the batter’s box for what proved to be the SEC Tournament Championship game’s pivotal at-bat.
“Last night even at-bats today, they were chasing pitches out of the zone,” Gilbert said. “Not something I feel like I’ve done a lot all year. But Coach V came up to me I think my third at-bat and told me to stop thinking and just go play. That helped a lot.”
Gilbert fell behind 0-2 before punishing a hanging breaking ball into left field. Florida left fielder Wyatt Langford took one fatal step in and couldn’t recover as the ball sailed over his head for a bases clearing double.
The Minnesota native aggressively high fived his teammates walking to the dugout during the ensuing pitching change and that sequence represented everything you need to know about the 2022 Tennessee baseball team.
First, there’s Langford’s misstep. A small and quick mistake that cost Florida three runs and any legitimate chance of upsetting No. 1 Tennessee.
Tennessee (53-7, 25-5 SEC) is dominant and one mistake against them can be lethal. The Vols’ offense was quiet for the better part of the tournament semifinals and championship, but pounced when their opponent’s mistakes created an opportunity.
The Vols are in the conversation as one of the greatest college baseball teams ever entering the NCAA Tournament and barely broke a sweat while sweeping through the nation’s premier conference’s postseason tournament.
Tennessee never trailed this week in Hoover and won its four games by an average of six runs. A tournament that’s built to push your pitching and depth to the limit proved no match for the Vols, who allowed 10 runs while using 12 different arms.
Then there’s the passion Gilbert showed charging to his teammates near the dugout — and later with a mammoth bat flip.
“I think this is the most passionate and emotional team I’ve ever been a part of,” first baseman Luc Lipcius said. “Throughout the whole season we really loved celebrating. With that we don’t too emotional in the game. When something good happens, we cheer, but it’s not like we don’t let the let’s say the biggest crowds affect us. So we love each other, have great team chemistry, and we really want everyone to do well, and I think that’s where all the passion and emotion comes from. We want to see each other succeed.”
There’s no sugarcoating the talent and depth on this Tennessee roster. To say anything else is the key reason for its astounding success would be misleading. There’s a lot of players who are going to make a lot of money playing baseball on this roster.
But, even Tony Vitello had to admit that the effort and attitude this team has every day is rare. You don’t win 53 of your first 60 games in a sport that’s designed to make you face failure without it having it in bunches.
“I think you always want to win,” Vitello said. “You may strategize a little differently if you’re going to rest a guy or pull a pitcher earlier, but all these kids want to win each game they play, it’s just a matter to what extent, and fortunately we don’t have Dean Craig, our chaplain, he had a good message for the guys today about effort and attitude. And it reinforced some things and he kept saying he sees all this stuff. It’s nice to not have to worry about those two things. That’s rare. They take care of it on a high level.”
As much as Tennessee’s talent was on display this week in Hoover, so was its energy and competitiveness. The Vols had nothing to prove or gain — outside of some hardware — in Hoover. But they competed relentlessly throughout a week that included an abundance of weather delays and two games that ended in a different day than they started.
It’s that combination that’s making people ask “Tennessee or the field” in a tournament the No. 1 overall seed hasn’t won since 1999.