There was a chance Drew Gilbert’s last moment in a Tennessee uniform would be Kellen Levy ejecting him in a loss. The ejection predicated a one-game suspension for the First Team All-SEC centerfielder and with the Vols on the brink of elimination, Gilbert wasn’t guaranteed another game in the orange-and-white.
Tony Vitello wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case.
“I can’t put that into words,” Vitello said of what it meant that Gilbert’s career wasn’t over while fighting back emotions. “You can come up with something if you want but I can’t.”
Gilbert — a junior and projected first round pick in next month’s MLB Draft — has been a staple of Tennessee’s ascension to the top of college baseball over the last two seasons.
Hitting in the cleanup spot the last two seasons, Gilbert has shown major growth in his two full seasons in Knoxville.
The Minnesota native provided an abundance of big hits a season ago, including walk off home runs against LSU and in the Knoxville Regional opener against Wright State.
However, Gilbert’s developed into a complete hitter this season. After hitting .274 last year, Gilbert led the SEC in batting this season and currently has a .369 bating average, a team-leading 21 doubles, 11 home runs and 70 RBIs.
NCAA rules didn’t allow Gilbert in Lindsey Nelson Stadium during the game due to NCAA rules before rejoining his teammates after the game.
“He came out and was apart of things at the end,” Vitello said. “He had to watch the game away from the stadium, so I don’t know where that location was. I was the guy that had to tell him he had to leave after we ate breakfast with the team, brunch whatever. That was fun. I got the look that other people on the field maybe have gotten before so I feel your pain.”
Vitello’s sarcasm appropriately analyzes Gilbert’s passion and energy. Despite pushing the limits throughout his three years in Knoxville, Friday marked the first time an umpire ejected Gilbert in his Tennessee career.
The Vols’ offense delivered in Gilbert’s absence, exploding for 12 runs thanks to an eight-run fifth inning. Tennessee hit four home runs in the top half of the fifth and the mid game explosion was plenty of offensive support with Chase Dollander dominating on the mound.
“It’s tough when you don’t have your spark plug in the lineup,” first baseman Luc Lipcius said. “We knew he was rooting from wherever he was and that he had our back. We just wanted to see him play again and I think he’s going to come out with a lot of energy. I think the crowd is going to go absolutely berserk when he gets that first AB. It’s going to be fun and we do it for him.”
Gilbert returns to Lindsey Nelson Stadium for what will likely be his last collegiate home game Sunday at 1:06 p.m. ET. ESPN is broadcasting the game.