Tennessee catcher Evan Russell was unavailable for the Vols’, 10-0, NCAA Tournament opening win over Alabama State due to sickness, according to head coach Tony Vitello.
“We’ll give it some time to figure out what’s going on because I have to get with Dr. (Chris) Klenck, but obviously Evan Russell was not here,” Vitello said. “He was sick this morning. I got a message from him. I’m going to always defer to those folks so don’t think I’m a bad guy if a guy sprains an ankle and I’m not out on the field. I don’t know what to do I’d just get in (trainer Jeff) Woody’s way and same thing with doc.
“It opened up an opportunity for (redshirt sophomore catcher) Charlie (Taylor) and also our guys to kind of rally around one another because clearly that’s a big piece there.”
Russell — who is tied with Todd Helton atop Tennessee’s career home run standings — started every SEC game behind the plate this season. The Lexington, Tennessee native transitioned from left field to catcher before this season and emerged as Vols’ best backstop by a sizable margin.
The super senior entered NCAA Tournament play hitting .299 with 13 home runs and 43 RBI— good for his best collegiate season.
Vitello appeared skeptical about Russell’s availability for Saturday’s matchup against Campbell while not wanting to speculate on his availability past the Knoxville Regional.
“I don’t know. I would say he wasn’t able to be here today— I wouldn’t think quick turnaround,” Vitello said of Russell’s availability the rest of the weekend. “In the fall, if you’re out one day you have to come to me first before we’ll see if we’re going to push the envelope. … Health first and then we’ll push the envelope later.”
Back up catcher Charlie Taylor started in Russell’s place and was solid behind the plate while going zero-of-three in four at-bats. Taylor struggled at the plate during the regular season, hitting two-of-31 entering Friday’s game.
Tennessee fans gave Taylor a warm reception, giving hardy rounds of applause as he walked to the batter’s box in all four plate appearances, even chanting the redshirt-sophomore’s name before his final at-bat.
“That was pretty awesome,” Taylor said. “Little bit nervous with the way Blade (Tidwell) threw the ball and the way Vol Nation rallied around me. I’ll probably never forget that stuff. Pretty cool moment for me.”
“If you come to practice, I think Charlie has everyone on our roster beat in terms of how he shows up and plays ball,” Vitello added. “It’s why he’s a fan favorite in the locker room. I don’t think it affect him much, but what our fans do in certain situations, and in particular being behind our guy, does things to my soul that I wish I could explain to you all that I can’t.”
The reaction of the night came following Taylor’s safety squeeze bunt that gave Tennessee a 4-0 lead in the fifth inning. The redshirt-sophomore laid down a perfect bunt that scored Blake Burke and sent the Tennessee dugout and Lindsey Nelson Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
“You’re supposed to be even-keeled, but I think my track record speaks volumes that I’m not good at that,” Vitello said. “It was a time to celebrate within the game even though the game was still in the balance. It’s awesome to see guys get rewarded the way that they should.”
Behind Taylor on the depth chart is utility man Jared Dickey who has spent most of the season in the corner outfield spots before a bone bruise in his foot sidelined him for most of SEC play. Dickey returned to the field in a hitting only role at the SEC Tournament but “can do things” according to Vitello.
Neither freshman catchers Ryan Miller or Nathan Smith are on Tennessee’s active 27-man roster for this weekend.
Tennessee resumes NCAA Tournament play Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET against No. 3 seed Campbell. The winner advances to the Knoxville Regional championship while the loser will face the winner of the Georgia Tech versus Alabama State game.