Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello met with the local media Wednesday morning to preview the Vols’ weekend series with Florida.
The Vols are No. 11 in the nation after dropping two out of three last weekend at No. 1 LSU. Life doesn’t get much easier for Tennessee this weekend as they’ll welcome No. 3 Florida to Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Vitello discussed the performances of a handful of outfielders, Chase Burns’ recent inconsistencies, Florida’s loaded lineup and much more.
Here’s everything Vitello said Wednesday.
On if Hunter Ensley has cemented himself as the starter in centerfield
“I think there could be situations where we would do a different combination out there in the outfield based on what is going on in the game. I feel confident each of those guys know those positions well out there, especially at home. But I think he’s solidified himself as a personality on the team. I’ve said multiple times he’s started to really come out of his shell as the type of kid he is and type of competitor that he is. And then we know we’re getting a guy who’s hooked up on defense and gives you competitive at-bats every time he’s in there.”
On what he liked about Dylan Dreiling’s weekend at LSU
“You hear coaches talk about, or even announcers, the guy knows how to slow the game down and I wish I knew what was in that recipe but he seems to have the game come pretty slow to him in the box for anyone but especially a freshman. Then he’s got a lot of skill with the bat and that was kind of known coming in based on how he was scouted by major league teams, when we recruited him, how well he’s done against strong competition. That theme continues and really I look forward to him getting better in other areas too because he could be a pretty well rounded player before he’s done here.”
On Kavares Tears injury (hamstring) status
“A little bit more mobile than he was. Would really like to be more conservative than not with that deal. Everyone knows a hamstring is one of those things than can linger for a while if it’s not handled or treated the right way, so would rather be patient but at the same time he is still a valuable bat for us even if he’s not in the outfield. I think we’re probably a week away before he could be in the outfield but as far as offense goes or even staying on the bases— if he would have reached base, his second base (at-bat) he hit a line drive that the right fielder made a nice play on. If he were to be safe on that we would have pinch ran for him right away. I’m not so sure this weekend we couldn’t leave him on the bases as long as it wasn’t a game tying situation or anything like that.”
On what he’s seen from Chase Burns, his struggles in SEC play
“He’s maybe had some inconsistencies. It’s tough to say struggle because at times he’s dominating the opposition. I feel like a moment in the middle of the game where Chris Burke and I are joking in the mid game interview about how dominating he is and then the next thing you know you see things go the other way. So it’s just been a lack of consistency. Frank (Anderson) knows better than me but my assessment that I’ve said a few times has been temperament. You have a guy that’s a year older and more confident, his stuff has ticked up a little bit. Some of that intensity, whether it’s Charlie Sheen coming out the bullpen in a movie or John Rocker back in the day. That closer mentality, maybe you can pull it off for an inning but really the best closer of all time is maybe Mariano Rivera where it’s a very consistent intent and focused mentality that the guy had. I can’t speak for Chase because internally I don’t know what’s going on in the game but you can see there’s moments of extreme intensity and maybe trying to do too much and so maybe a lack of consistency in their performance.”
On the first half of the season and what he wants to see in the second half
“Parallel to the fall. I think a lot of growth from the first weekend, and we said that about the fall. August was almost awkward with how new everything seemed to feel and how many questions were unanswered. But by the end of the fall, it didn’t seem like that, and you had a lot of questions answered. But start a whole new season, the actual season, and I think we’ve made a lot of progress, answered a lot of questions compared to game one, and I look for, really, that same theme to continue. Everyone is talking around the office, and I’ve spoken with some of you all, our best baseball is yet to come. And also our best team personality, team image, or just best environment is yet to occur as well, and that’s not going to happen just over time, just because time takes place, it’s got to be progress and guys forging ahead. Fortunately, we’ve had that mentality.”
On the bullpen performance at LSU
“Yeah we feel like there’s one part of any game… because our league is always a monster, in particular like the team we’re about to face, there’s just an extreme level of talent. But the one area we feel like we can go toe-to-toe with somebody is the bullpen. There’s a lot of options even after a weekend like playing LSU, top to bottom maybe the best lineup in the league, we felt like we had unused, strong options down there. It gives us confidence, and that should, you’d like to think, relieve stress on the starters and realize, ‘You give us four innings, especially on the road, and we’re still in the game,’ or we have a chance to win the game, is a better way to say it, ‘you did your job for us.’ But those guys are really talented. They have high expectations not just that they put on themselves, but they hear it from other people, too, and it changes the narrative a little bit. But at the end of the day, whether we get two hits or 20 hits, or we get shutout innings or whatever, our group is trying to win the game. So as it relates to our starter-reliever marriage we have going on there, the starters just need to get us midway through the game, and midway this year is kind of more the 4th (inning) than the 6th (inning) because that relief crew is pretty strong.”
On Florida, specifically Jac Caglianone
“Thanks for bringing that up. I don’t know that we’re (Vitello and Caglianone) paisans this weekend with what he can do on both sides of the ball. He is a part of a staff that, Sully (Florida HC Kevin O’Sullivan) has been around this league and done as much as anybody, and he said this might be his best (pitching) staff he’s ever had, so I think that speaks volumes. Part of the reason is because of (Jac) Caglianone, but also (Brandon) Sproat, a kid who could’ve went out and been a very high pick last year, decides to come back, which individually he’s saying he’s betting on himself and can improve his status there, but as a team it means you are getting a guy like (Blade) Tidwell back on your pitching staff. And then on the offensive side with Caglianone, he really can do no wrong offensively, but right now, (Josh) Rivera could argue he’s got the best numbers, their shortstop, out of anybody, and the third guy who is in the conversation of their top three hitters is (Wyatt) Langford. Going into the season, he was not just talked about being the best offensive player on that team, but maybe in the league. So there’s plenty of talent behind those three guys, but three really big starters that we’ll see this weekend, and then three guys that sit in that lineup and boast pretty gaudy numbers.”
On if the team has more pep in their step after the LSU series finale win
“I think going into the week, Sunday or Game 3 — which occurred on Saturday this past week — it does affect the environment going home, on the trip. Everyone doesn’t feel like they have to be quiet. They definitely weren’t quiet. Then when you start the week, you do have more pep in your step. And certainly confidence. In this league, you can’t shy away from competition at all, but it is one of the toughest environments that we will play in all year long. One of the — or top to bottom, the best lineup. To come out of there with a win and knowing that maybe we didn’t play our best baseball and were in each of those three games should also add confidence to the guys that we can compete with anybody in the league. But this will be a new set starting tomorrow night. I think if anything is going to give our guys confidence, it is the fact we are playing on our home field in front of our fans.”
On if LSU series finale can be a springboard like 2019 Vanderbilt series finale
“Your history is better than mine. I think it could be. That team was unique into itself. For this group, I think where that may be in this storybook is a turning point is that it is the start of the second half of the season. The last couple of years, it is almost like people are whispering don’t win too many games too early or were you playing your best baseball prior to a certain point in the postseason. You want to keep building and building and building. There is no magic formula for that but this team seems to have the consistent theme of getting to know each other more, growing more in all categories and then playing better. Then as a coaching staff, we seem to be getting answers more and more as days go by. I think as a turning point, it is the start of the second half. You could argue a bunch of different things about the first half. Overall, fairly successful. We have to build on that and be playing our best baseball in the second half.”
On how good it was to see Camden Sewell have an extended outing against LSU and with his return, how that helps the bullpen
“It does a lot because to me — you can’t pay too much attention to the scoreboard. That deal and then of course Zane (Denton) popping one out of the park so we’re not sitting on a lead, was the edge in that game (three vs. LSU). The biggest thing about Cam’s effort was — I hope our guys were paying attention and I don’t know if they were because Camden is older and they expect great things of him. If he’s out there, he can be successful, but the way he handled things — he finally calmed down and the way he progressed in his throwing and we were conservative with him. We feel great with where he’s at. He could start a game if need be. Again, the bigger theme was the way that guy battled and competed — I mean, he’s pacing up and down the whole dugout the whole weekend. He wanted to go in the game and to be honest with you, I probably needed to tell him he’s wearing himself out before he’s even wearing himself out. Then in the game, it was constant — every inning they had a chance to score. So, it was like a save, a save, a save, a save. And the way he battled is something our guys need to recognize. He’s got talent, but he’s been around this league for a long time and had a lot of success because the type of competitor that he is.”
On how much Christian Scott has provided since settling in as an everyday player and how much he needs Kyle Booker to be consistent
“Just be Kyle Booker. We’ve kind of conversated about it a bunch of different ways, but the kid can do some electric things with the bat. He can be a real positive for us defensively. Last year, kind of switched the game for us against Georgia Tech in the regional final if you remember. He was a pinch-runner for us. So in all facets of the game, he can be incredibly valuable. And he’s got a really fun personality to be around. He’s a big-league clubhouse type guy. But, like a like a lot of kids, not just on our team, he can kind of cover that up with a negative blanket when he tries to do too much or gets emotionally out of control or anything like that. If he’s himself it’s a lot of fun. He broke into this league as a pinch-hitter for us in the eighth and ninth inning against the best closers in this league his freshman year and did really well, so I think that speaks to what he can do as much as anything.
“For Christian Scott, it’s just fun to see him play every day because you saw the theme coming of, ‘okay, this is year to be out there more.’ He’s had injuries, he’s had really good players in front of him, he’s had growing pains and he tried to do so much early on — again, negative blanket. Kind of sounds crazy like teaching a kindergarten class. — but for whatever reason, he kind of pushed aside his best baseball with trying to almost do too much. Now he’s just playing. A kid the other guys cheer for, we’ve been dying to see out there a bunch, he’s been wanting to be out there and capitalize on all the work he’s put in. And again, he’s just given us what Christian Scott can. We don’t need him to try and beat out Caglianone for the SEC home run title or steal more bases than Christ Burke or anything like that. Just go out there and play. When he does, it’s pretty nice. Got a guy that can bunt, a guy that can steal bases, a plus-defender and a guy who has come up with some big hits for us in really a small sample size of opportunities.”