Tony Vitello knew he missed an opportunity with this historic Tennessee (57-9, 25-5 SEC) team. The fifth-year coach felt like he didn’t put his team in the best position to win in the Vols’ season ending loss to Notre Dame.
“Obviously, congratulations to Notre Dame,” Vitello said in his opening statement. “I’d say they have a lot to do with what I’m at fault for as far as decision making. The job of a coach is once the game starts to put your guys in a good position to succeed and I didn’t do that. This is a job that requires big boy decisions and they come at high stakes when you play in our league or you get into the postseason.”
Tennessee’s Chase Burns was in the midst of his best collegiate start when things went awry in the seventh inning.
Notre Dame had totaled just one-run on the talented freshman through 6.2 innings. That came when Jack Zyska led off the second inning with a single, stole second and third and scored on a David LaManna groundout.
It was LaManna at the plate again with Burns looking for one more out to strand Carter Putz on second and preserve a, 3-1, Tennessee lead. LaManna had just one home run in 139 at-bats on the season before flicking an opposite field home run barely over the right field wall into the Tennessee dugout.
With LHP Kirby Connell and RHP Camden Sewell ready in the bullpen it seemed like Tennessee would make the move. Instead, Vitello gave the Freshman All-American one more batter.
A Jack Brannigan fly ball just went foul on what would have been an 0-1 homer. Brannigan didn’t miss again, sending a go-ahead home run deep to left center two pitches later.
“It’s just the fact that he had gotten their best hitter out,” Vitello said on why he kept Burns in. “Jack (Zyska) is a special kid. You can see that. He’s pretty annoying if you’re on the other side, but he’s that for a reason. Chase gets him out, so now we’re one out away. I’ve been at a couple of other fields too where it has that quirky—and (David) LaManna certainly squared it up—angle down the right field corner. If it goes, it goes.
“After seeing that foul-home run against Brannigan, maybe making the pitching change in the middle of that at-bat would have been wise, but I think Chase wanted the ball. He certainly took ownership of the game. We felt good about the matchup against LaManna, but we should have taken him out before that, in particular after the foul-home run. Usually what ends up happening is that you strike out as a hitter after the foul-home run, but kudos to him. He smoked two balls. It wasn’t like Chase wasn’t on the map. I think it was 97 on the radar gun. The pitch before was certainly a ball, but it was a pretty crisp 0-2 pitch where you’d like to see the guy swing and miss or if it’s a little closer to the plate, maybe you get a borderline strike call.”
From there, Tennessee never threatened. The Fighting Irish added three insurance runs in the eighth inning while Notre Dame reliever Jack Findlay faced the minimum in the final three innings.
A reported asked Vitello if the decision not to pull Burns was the mistake he referenced in his opening statement and the Tennessee coach kept it open ended.
“I think just in general the last three innings,” Vitello said.
Notre Dame advances to the College World Series while Tennessee’s season ends one game short of a return trip to middle America.