Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello met with the local media Tuesday before his team takes off for Arizona and its season opening weekend.
The Vols are playing in the MLB Desert Invitational where they’ll face Arizona, Grand Canyon and UC-San Diego in the three-day event.
The sixth-year head coach discussed the catching competition, Tennessee’s pitching depth and much more.
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On how Chase Dollander is handling the preseason hype
“He has kind of progressed since he has been on campus in every category you can come up with. The one that is most noticeable is what you would throw under the category of presence. How he handles himself around the team. Becoming a leader. Becoming a guy that probably needed to be corrected in some areas when he first got here and that is really just getting used to the program to know he corrects other guys in a positive fashion. Then handling himself on the mound the way he does. Whether it is hype or that kind of talk or being nervous about the season started and I am now talking about every player on our team. You are not natural if you don’t think those things. If you were ever to come to me and say man I want to do just as well as I did last year or any of the other guys said I want to achieve this or I am stressed about a pro career. It is normal. I think the key is to embrace it and also kind of set it aside because once the game starts, it technically doesn’t have anything to do with our team trying to beat the other team. He has been good.”
On if the catching plan is finalized for this weekend
“Not really and part of what interfered with that was the last weekend that was our final go-round with scrimmages and thinks like that. Cal (Stark) had a 103-degree fever, so we told him to stay away for a couple days. He came back and caught nine innings and looked good. The bottom line is we want to use Charlie (Taylor) and Cal to complement one another. But we like the fact that Ryan Miller, who is a big bat, is available. Kind of an offensive-first guy but he has come along defensively. We know Jared (Dickey) can play that position, too. He has cemented himself in my non-expert opinion but I think the other coaches, too, who know catching even better than I, that he is a true high-level, SEC, whatever-you-want-to-call-it catcher. We do kind of have that wild card in our back pocket.”
On the mentality of this team
“I think it has just been a parallel to how they have gotten closer as a team. We finally have had a couple guys arguing with each other on the field, which is healthy any time you have a— in my case, brother-sister relationship — when your family has been around each other, you are going to have conflict and you are going to have resolution. You are also going to have some fun times that aren’t just hey the coaches are going to play Spike Ball today and have fun. It is kind of things that come organically out of the locker room and the weight room. It is starting to feel more like a team even more so than it did in Jackson, Tennessee, and then if you date back to September and even prior to that when we first played Wake Forest (in October). It didn’t seem like a team at all. That progression I think is at a certain point but by no means is kind of where it needs to be at the end and where it is going and what it was like with a couple of the other teams that we had. Everyone had been around the program and each other for so long. This has a fresh flavor to it, which therein lies means it is a new one. I think there’s days ahead where we are going to notice more progress and feel good about it.”
On if he has a good idea how he wants to stack the lineup
“Not really. I think Christian Moore’s a guy who will compete at the plate every pitch and like every hitter things will go good and bad but he’s going to get on base a lot. You’d like guys to be on base and he’s strong enough to drive the ball too— anybody can see that. Blake Burke is really gifted and like Jordan Beck, is obsessed with hitting. It’s not like he ignores the other parts of his game but it’s a nice combination of work ethic and talent which you love to see. It’s kind of like what Coach Ehlander had when he was back as a player. He’s going to be in the thick of the thing and we’ll probably end up moving some guys around. I know the first three days there’s a great chance we’ll have three different lineups. So last year I said there’s going to be some experimentation and we really only had the two-hole and six-hole kind of rotated a little bit. But this year I think that will hold true that there will be some more experimentation with those guys.”
On how Charlie Taylor has developed this offseason
“Everyday you get the same thing so as a person he’s the exact same guy he was when he walked through our door and even when we recruited him. He’s so business like, such a good kid, loved by his teammates. Just when you think he’s too much business he’ll throw out a dry sense of humor joke on you so it’s been what you kind of preach as a coach in any sport— inch along a little bit. You don’t have to conquer the world between March and April but just inch along a little bit. So if you were to ask about a specific category whether it be throwing, I just think he’s kind of inched along. Now the biggest jump he’s made is what he understands comes with that duty of being behind the plate. You’ve got to kind of be the point guard. Doesn’t mean you have to grab somebody by the jersey or yell at a pitcher or anything like that. You have to have rapport with the umpires, rapport with the pitching coach, with the pitcher and then you have to also kind of guide the team because you have the whole field in front of you. I think he’s stepping out of his comfort zone and realizing pretty good player, you also have good leadership skills and whether you like it or not you’re going to need to be both. He’s diving into that a little bit more I’d say.”
On what he’s looking for from the young guys this weekend
“Help us win. You know, to not freak out. I mean, come on, there’s serious stuff without beating everybody down here or myself and getting depressed or anything, there’s a lot of serious stuff going on. On college campuses included, so you’ve been doing all this stuff in the weight room and all of those things hopefully because you like doing them but also because you’ve been doing them with the thought process of the light at the end of the tunnel is an opportunity to compete against a worthy opponent and see what I can and can’t do and then the game will kind of tell you where you’re at. You’re not going to be able to fool anybody so to go out there and try to be Superman doesn’t make sense. What makes even worse sense is what I did— put all kinds of work in and then go out there and you doubt yourself or over complicate things and now the real version of you didn’t even appear. So how do the coaches or you and your parents at dinner, how do you even grade that out. So it’s overly simple but to go out and just play ball and then we’ll kind of figure out where we’re at and if we have some problems, whether it be a specific individual or as a team, that’s a good thing. Then we have stuff to work on in practice.”
On what outfield spot Jared Dickey is working most at
“Yeah, all three. He can move around at first base now with how athletic he’s become. I tease him because when he first got here, we threw him over there because he was a hitter. And he stunk at first. I bet if we gave him that opportunity, he’d be much better, but he’s still caught bullpens. Hasn’t been back there lately, but that’s more just for him getting used to being at all three [outfield] spots. I think the majority of where this lineup experimentation will take place, is with the DH and the outfield spot. It’s going to be one in the same. Our DH is almost always going to be – sizing up our personnel – almost always going to be an outfielder. Don’t hold this to me too much, but I bet we will have three different outfields in three days out there in Arizona.”
On what stands out about UT’s opponents this weekend
“I know Arizona has probably been looking forward to this game. I assume our guys have been too, we haven’t built things up too much. You love when an SEC opponent comes to your place and they are playing in a conference that in comparable to ours anyway. It’s a program with a lot of history, so it’s not like they don’t have a lot to stick their chest out about. When you get an opportunity to beat an SEC team, I’d like to think that you get geeked up. This team is going to have a different personality, but when you have the theories were that were thrown out about our team last year, people are probably going to be excited to beat us and stick their nose up at us or use whatever emoji you want to use at the start of the year anyway. I think all that is going to be a part of the storyline, but really, I think what it is going to be is – we are going down there, towards their home turf, and everyone is going to be excited across the country to start Opening Day. You got a fresh, clean start. So, it’s going to be all the excitement you can imagine and let’s see what we are all about. No better way to do it than to challenge yourself against an Omaha caliber club in Arizona. For us, we have obviously done some good things lately and so that will come with that.
“Now, Grand Canyon is a program and what they do well is, they win a lot of games without everyone in the country knowing it because it’s not a huge school. By now you’ve seen YouTube basketball videos. It’s a really cool campus. It’s completely transformed into the university that it is, if you know the history of the school. The baseball program has always been good. But probably because the baseball stadium has become really good – the campus – the baseball program has gotten even better. They have a short stop that can be a first rounder and a couple of other highly-touted guys.
“We will worry about day three when we get there. That’s already a lot of thoughts. Day three for me will be cool because on the other coaching staff will be a player who I coached at the University of Missouri. Love that kid (Bryson LeBlanc). We will have to be enemies for a day and then hug it out afterwards.”
On what Seth Halvorsen is looking like ahead of a healthy season
“He’s so physical compared to when he got here. Part of that is you get some extra time in the weight room because he had taken some time off of throwing. I sensed a little bit of almost like two boxers trying to feel each other out. When he first got onto the mound, he was kind of feeling it out a little bit and now you’re starting to see him cut some pitches loose and more comfortable. With repetitions in a game, I think that’s going to happen even more. You also get the sense when he s out there like, ‘I’ve been here before.’ He’s been a Friday night starter for a team, so he’s been more experienced than the average guy, whether that’s on our team or anyone else’s. That stuff is going to keep inching along and so is that comfortability. He’s one of those guys who I think will naturally progress and in May, you all will look back with the fan’s eye or the critic’s eye, and say ‘this guy looks even better than he did at the start of the season.’”
On how he is approaching the pitching this weekend
“For us, it’ll be limit the starter. Last year, we had a couple of guys who had really good outings in the first few weekends and we’re in the dugout, like, ‘what do we do?’ It’s better to get these guys to where there’s a progression as opposed to trying to slam ‘em or soak as many innings out of them as you can. We’ll get our guys to their pitch limit which will be pretty conservative and that will open up an opportunity. That’s how I’ve always liked to do it and it helps in recruiting. People see that we use a lot of pitchers and we don’t want to leave any stone unturned going into SEC play. At least we know what this guy looks like against outside competition.
“Redmond Walsh is a great example. If you watched him in scrimmages, he was right in the middle of the road of our pitchers, but when we gave him an ample opportunity against outside competition, for whatever reason — and I would love Redmond to give me that secret sauce so we could pour it over some other guys — he was pretty dang good on gameday. We’ll give guys opportunities and they’ll make the most of them. Then we’ll see where everyone is at. If you do give them the proper sample size, no one is going to trick the game, or the coaching staff or the opponent. We’ll be able to size up where everyone is at and be able to make more educated decisions as we get closer to SEC play.”
On the biggest way this offseason has felt different from last offseason
“In the fall it was really challenging because we had some young guys that were sore on the mound and you have that every fall, but we really wanted to see what these guys could do because there are so many new faces. And then we had a lot illness. For whatever reason, flu and other bugs ran ramped through our campus and I know others, too. So, it was tough to get some momentum and then since we’ve come back, I think the one thing that sticks out about this group is they picked up on the theme of you have to do your work in the offseason. They came back looking good and I think they’re more ambitious to be who they are as a team. Last year, believe it or not, there was a lot of uneasiness of ‘Who are we?’ ‘What can we can and not do?’ And probably a little bit of that anxiety in a positive way kind of pushed like, ‘We can’t get complacent. We’ve got a lot of things we need to figure out.’
“With this team, it’s been a little bit more of a push just towards coming together as a team, let’s get as much done as we can before we start the season because once it starts, it’s tough to make up too much ground in one area or another.”
On left-handed bullpen arms separating themselves
“Jacob Bimbi is pretty good. The last few times out, yeah, the last four times out, in my mind, and we’ve tried to ramp up the kind of game like scenarios where they have to come straight out of the pen and things like that so he’s certainly done well. Fitz has probably liked to throw better than he has the last two times but his stuff is so good, it’s always there. It’s about the piece being in play we’ve talked about already, go play. Play ball. Wyatt (Evans) we’ve kind of slowed him down a little bit but Wyatt will be in the mix and Kirby is Kirby. The stache is still there and I’m sure he’ll have a cowboy hat on on the plane tomorrow, although I don’t know what our dress code is tomorrow for the plane. So there’s opportunities out there and I think Zander is the one guy that’s been really fun to watch. I mean he was highly recruited out of high school but thin kid that had to grow into his body and he’s not a stuff guy where he’s throwing 96 like Crochet, so it’s been fun to see him develop as a pitcher and I feel like we can use him in any situation, not just the Tuesday starter like he was last year.”