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Tony Vitello Previews Kentucky, Tennessee’s Penultimate SEC Series

Josh Heupel Tony Vitello
Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel (left) and Tennessee baseball head coach Tony Vitello (right). Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello met with the media Thursday afternoon to preview the Vols penultimate SEC series of the season. The Vols welcome Kentucky to Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend and can all but clinch their spot in the NCAA Tournament with a strong weekend.

Vitello discussed what he knows about Kentucky, former Vols now in minor league baseball and much more.

Here’s everything Vitello had to say.

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On Kentucky

“A good club. No. 1 in the country if you’re going to go off of RPI standards, which obviously carries a lot of weight, so, again, first in the country in that category and therefor in our league, too. A team that will have some familiar faces, but just like every year in our league with the draft and everything else, a lot of turnover. So, some new faces, too. But on offense, they like to bunt, like to run. And a pitching staff that is well coached as well.”

On hitting 100 home runs in back-to-back seasons when it had only been done once in program history before he arrived

“I don’t know. Prior to that (2021) we were real close to that number (98) because I think Coach (Josh) Elander was bothered by it, but at the end of the day, the stat you would like to have more than anything is a win. When you’re able to drive the ball for extra base hits whether it be home runs or doubles or triples, you put yourself in a good position and I think our ball park has been friendly to us as has other places. The combination of said Coach Elander getting guys to swing the bat in the cage the way that he used to, and then Coach Q (Quentin Eberhardt) in the weight room, is a pretty good combo. And of course, just like everybody in the country, you’re trying to coach good athletes, too. We’ve been blessed with some guys who have done well here and you see the group in pro ball — on the mound and at the plate — is doing really well right now. It’s fun to watch those guys in addition to trying to see who the next wave of guys will be.”

On if there’s one particular thing Eberhardt has implemented in the weight room to increase the home run numbers

“First of all, I stay out of his way. The first year I liked being in there and kind of walking on the treadmill or kind of killing time in there to see how the guys handle their business. I mean, you can tell a lot about a guy with how he goes about it, his routines in particular in the weight room. And also to just get a feel for what he was doing, but I’m out-dated on all that stuff, so I stay out of his way. He’s obviously been a big league coach. He’s been a coach throughout the minor leagues. He played himself, so he’s as experienced as anyone and he’s got his own little formula he uses and the one thing that’s cool about he and Coach (Frank) Anderson, they’re both arguably — well, not arguably. They are at the top. Now if you want to put them in first place in their category in college baseball, that would probably be a heated debate, but they’re both open to new ideas and learning about, whether it’s new technology or whatever it is and they supplement with those things that they think are appropriate. But again, he’s got his own system that’s worked at all levels and has certainly worked for us.”

On how difficult it is to prepare for an unknown Kentucky starter

“Well, I think they formally announced that [Travis] Smith will throw, who threw for them and then if I’m not mistaken, the outing before that was on a Tuesday against Louisville, who’s an SEC-quality baseball program. Even though he’s a redshirt freshman, if I’m not mistaken, he’s got experience. He kind of knows what’s going on and he’s a competitor, otherwise he wouldn’t have the ball on Friday. So, you take a look at who you’re facing, and as those guys, those new guys, those first-year guys play more and more, you get a little more data, you get a little more analytics, and it does probably actually sway a little easier to prepare. Now once the game starts, you just play ball. Again, for us, we want to know who the opponent is, but ultimately, with this team in particular, we’re looking just to play our best baseball, our best versions of ourselves out there.”

On Andrew Lindsey’s confidence growing

“The cool thing about him, and I think also his teammates because of how he goes about his business, how he competes, and his personality, I think he’s always been confident. And I think the guys have always been confident in him. Because we were going to shake some things up for a variety of reasons, the guys didn’t bat an eye. They liked that he was going to get the ball. I think where some things have increased, and maybe confidence in our ability to leave him out there for a longer period of time, pitch count and things like that, and just kind of having a feel for how the game is going to go when he’s out there for five-plus innings. Now that he’s settled in as a true starter, I think there’s a greater sense of comfort there and understanding.

“Regardless of how it goes, a lot of our guys have attributes that we trust and know are going to be there no matter what the scoreboard says. And you know his teammates like playing behind him, and you know he’s going to compete.”

On how Kavares Tears being back shakes up the DH spot

“I think KT (Kavares Tears) is still kind of getting back to it, so there’s a little bit of an asterisk as it relates to him being out there for us. But Griffin [Merritt] is one of the older, more experienced, more successful hitters in the country, and then Dylan Dreiling is one of the more up-and-coming talented hitters you have. It’s nice that one’s right and one’s left, so you can kind of mix-and-match a little bit. But the bottom line is we have gone with what we think is our best defense going into the weekends, and then try to find a way to get those two guys in the lineup or to give us a chance to produce offensively, which they seem to do more than not before the game is over. 

“Now, KT gave us a nice little spark when he was playing. So it’ll be interesting to see how we get him back into the mix. Tuesday’s start was just to get some reps under his belt so it didn’t feel like he was going from 0-to-60. But we’ll have to see how he gets mixed in, and certainly being a left-handed pinch-hitter is a good option.”

On what it’s like seeing former plays have quick success in the minor leagues

“It’s fun. As a coach or even as a person, if you help somebody out and then it goes their way you immediately want to pat yourself on the back whether it’s internally or externally, but it just makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you did the right things to help them prepare for pro ball. That is one of our setups. Guys do it differently. One way we coach our guys is we want them to be empowered to coach themselves when they’re done here regardless of what those circumstances are that they go on to. I feel like even guys who haven’t gotten a whole lot of action or I’ll just say, guys who have transferred, that communicate with us or guys that enter pro ball— they feel like this place better prepared them for whatever the next thing is.

“Sorry for the recruiting blurb but that’s the front end of it. The other thing is, successful people are usually successful people for a reason. Those are really good dudes and really good competitors that are lumped into that group so they’re easy to cheer for. I find myself maybe checking up on the recent groups more than any guys I’ve ever coached before. Obviously I like Coach Elander (who played for Vitello at TCU) but I don’t know. There’s just something about some of the guys that have paved the way here. You’re looking at three decks now in the stadium. All those guys, and some guys that are done with pro ball or didn’t make it— Pete Derkay. They helped build that deal. So there’s a close knit there if that makes sense.”

On Kentucky’s ability to steal bases

“I think it’s circumstantial. On the whole, it’s a topic that you bring up for good reason. But I think it’s circumstantial – what’s going on with the score, who is up at the plate and who do we have on the mound with what the count is and stuff like that. You want to know who is on the bases and want to approach it carefully going over that way. We have talked about it and gone over stuff to prepare. I think it was against Austin Peay when they reviewed the play at second base, CMo [Christian Moore] had a really good tag and Zane Denton had a play that they reviewed at third when we were at Georgia and had a really good tag at a play around the base. So, we have to be strong around the base and be sure you’re doing a good job on the receiving end. The catch is very, very important because whoever is back there, that’s all we want them to do is to play catch. If you have to be Superman coming out of there breaking the world record for pop time, then it wasn’t meant to be to get the guy out anyway. If we play catch and do a good job on the receiving end, that to me is success. Whether the guy is out of safe, we will leave that up to the umpires.”

On what the fan’s support has meant to the team this year

“All you have to do is look at it. When things kind of didn’t go our way, it could have been easy to be fair weather fans after a loss to Tennessee Tech. Instead, it seems like the season, the fan base has been growing. You actually look back to February, we might have had one of our best weekends even prior to getting into what is called the spring. The weather hasn’t been perfect. It feels like it has been better on the road than when here in Knoxville. Usually, the better the weather gets and the better you play, the better the crowds get. Our crowds have just increasingly got better and more intense as the season has gone on. So, they’ve helped us right the ship or gain momentum as the season has been going. I would expect the final weekend to be a little bit rowdy. As they say in Dazed and Confused, school is out for the summer.”  

On the importance of winning at home this weekend

“I think it’s the game that is in front of you. This team has its own theme. This season has written part of its story to this point. All you have to do is look at the wackiness that took place here Tuesday in the midweek game for a reference point of what is the next thing in front of you. Our guys will be out here shortly and it will be a lighter practice with finals and a Friday series awaiting us. Three long days. What is the thing in front of you? We probably had the best coach in the country talking about being where your feet are in Pat Summitt. So, I would listen to her before I listen to me if I were one of our players.” 

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