Tennessee coach Tony Vitello thinks sophomore Chase Burns season has mirrored his team’s as a whole. Both have failed to reach their lofty preseason expectations and, from Vitello’s vantage point, have had bad breaks cause things to spiral and look worse than they really are.
“If you look at his body of work prior to this, a lot of stuff kind of hit a downward spiral because it’s so frustrating, it kind of mirrors our team,” Vitello said. “He’s throwing the ball well, throwing the ball well, then we don’t make a play behind him, bad break, a guy does square a ball up… and then it would kind of snowball a little bit.”
Both Tennessee and Burns were at their best in Friday night’s 4-3 series opening win against Vanderbilt. The mid-state native dominated the school he grew up 31 miles from, keeping Vanderbilt off the scoreboard while striking out seven in three innings pitched.
“His outing was impressive enough (that) I don’t have words for it, and yet, I’ll stop myself and say he’s capable of that,” Vitello said.
A consensus Preseason First Team All-American, SEC foes teed off on Burns in his first four conference starts pushing the right-hander to the bullpen— a role he’s only briefly held in his two-year college career.
Burns looked more like himself in his first bullpen performance against Arkansas, allowing just one run in 5.1 innings, but the sophomore entered in a blowout with little at stake. Everything was at stake when Burns entered in extra innings against Vanderbilt and the talented right-hander was even more impressive as he faced the minimum.
The soft spoken sophomore showed some serious swagger in the process, roaring off the mound after inning ending strikeouts in both the 10th and 11th inning— one of which came on a 100 mph fastball.
“I’ve always had it,” Burns said of the emotion. “When you don’t want to lose, those emotions come out and you want to dig a little bit deeper to get that win.”
But what’s been different for Burns in his last two outings out of the bullpen? Vitello believes its as simple as a needed reset for the talented right-hander.
“He just needed Coach [Rick] Barnes to call a 20-second timeout and reset and realize there’s still half of the year left, and he could put together a pretty dang good year,” Vitello said.
The reset has allowed Burns to relax more. He doesn’t have the pressure of starting in a pivotal game as a pitcher opponents have been excited and readying to face all week. Not knowing when he’s going to pitch also helps him stay more even kill.
More From RTI: Tennessee Hoping Walk Off Against Vanderbilt Can Be ‘Firestarter’ For Second Half Of Season
That mindset paid dividends Friday, entering in a 2-2 count Burns immediately went to his slider and got the strikeout on the first pitch he threw.
“I think you are more relaxed just because you’re in the dugout cheering your team on and all of a sudden he tells you to go down and that’s when it kind of kicks in,” Burns said. “But, you know, it is what it is. Whatever role I’m in, I’m going to do my job.”
Mindset has been a part of Burns’ recent turnaround but so have mechanics. The Gallatin native pitched from the stretch his entire outing, something that felt comfortable and aligned with mechanical changes he’s made in recent weeks.
“Me and Q(uentin Eberhardt), our strength coach, we talked about my body movements and stuff like that so we’ve been really working on my hips to throw more strikes and it’s really working,” Burns said.
Burns throwing strikes was a major problem for him early in the season and has been a strength the last two weeks. The tall right-handers command of his slider has been particularly important, something Vitello and Burns both noted postgame.
“It’s one of my best pitches,” Burns said. “It’s a plus-plus pitch. Me and Coach A(nderson) talk about it all the time. I think just throughout the last couple of outings I’ve been finding it so I think it’s really good right now.”
Vitello thinks Burns’ season has mirrored Tennessee’s. Burns is starting to turn the corner in a new role and is pitching to his potential. Vitello and the Vols hope they turn the corner with the sophomore. Friday night was a good start.