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What Tony Vitello, AJ Russell Said About Russell’s Return To Mound In SEC Tournament

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

There were few bright spots for Tennessee baseball in its 13-4 SEC Tournament opening loss against Vanderbilt on Wednesday evening in Hoover.

One major bright spot was sophomore pitcher AJ Russell returning to the mound for the first time in nearly two months as the Vols look to get him action before the NCAA Tournament.

Russell pitched one inning. Things started poorly for Russell as the right-handed pitcher hit the first batter he faced and then allowed a single to left field. He responded well from there, retiring the next three batters with a strikeout, fielder’s choice and another strikeout— stranding a pair of runners in-scoring position.

The talented sophomore’s final line: One inning pitched, one hit, zero runs, zero walks, one hit batter and two strikeouts on 22 pitches and 15 strikes.

After the game, Russell discussed his return to the mound and head coach Tony Vitello discussed what the plan was for Russell, what he saw and what’s next. Here’s everything each said.

More From RTI: What To Know About Tennessee Baseball’s Loss Against Vanderbilt

Tony Vitello

On AJ Russell improving over the course of the inning

“It was good. We didn’t have many zeros in the game. We can talk about Snead, but he came out throwing the ball really well in the first two innings, and then Russell not only got a zero but we’re an eyelash away from turning a double play where he doesn’t even have to face another hitter.

It was kind of what I expected, and you guys have been asking a lot, so tried to be as honest as possible, and there’s nothing to hide there. You’ve got a kid that is being patiently aggressive towards getting to 100 percent, and he’s not there yet.

But again, if you’re going to take away a positive from the game, talk about guys getting their cleats in the dirt, it was him getting out there. And, again, a zero is nice, but he wants to face the best hitters regardless of how it’s going. So I’m not too worried about that. It was just him feeling comfortable, and obviously unless he’s lying to us, which he won’t do that very often.”

On what AJ Russell’s pitch count was, if they’d like to use him again this weekend if they make a run

Yeah, best-case scenario, if we stick around long enough, he would be able to do that. If not, then he’ll just jump into a situation where he can face hitters again. We’ve kind of beat up the whole bullpen situation, so having guys standing in there I think is beneficial for him.

Pitch count-wise was more like 25 to 35. The fact he kind of got in a jam — maybe if that double play is turned over, we send him back out for a hitter or two, but with the inning kind of going the way it did, it was kind of a group decision led by Frank, let’s just move on to the next guy. It was good for him to get out there.

AJ Russell

On what the last few months have been like, what his goals are for the rest of the season

“I think the last few months have been tough just mentally and all that and getting through it. But the support has been huge just from everybody, friends, guys on the team, the coaches, parents, all that stuff.

It’s been huge to me. I think it’s a big reason why I’ve been back. I think a big thing I’m looking to accomplish is just to help out. We’ve talked a few times, and I’m not coming in to throw six, seven innings, it’s more like one, two innings just to try and get a few outs here and there and get to the next guy.”

On getting out of a jam

“I think the big difference was I could breathe a little bit. The first two batters I think I was pretty anxious coming into it, in general, because I hadn’t been on the mound in a while. And then once I could breathe, settling down, just realizing that I hit spots and all that kind of thing, trust Cal behind the plate that good things would come from that.

And just post bullpen, it gets better each time I throw. Soreness-wise, all that, each time I throw, it just gets stronger, and I feel better each time. Feel good right now, and ready to go for whenever is next.”

On what the buildup was like, what he had working for him

“I think the buildup mainly has just been throwing as much as possible and just listening to my body as best I can.

I think each day is different for me. Some days I feel really good, especially early. Some days I was like, I don’t even know if I can throw this right now, and it was kind of just — it was kind of day by day. Each time, like I said earlier, each time I throw, it just got better and better.

I think the fastball was good. There was a few here and there that were rough that didn’t really do what they normally do. But for the most part, I think the fastball was the best. And still getting a feel for the off-speed and all that. But I hit spots pretty well and that kind of thing, so I think it was good.”

On the frustrations of the injury

“Like I said earlier, I think just the support around the team and all that, the coaches, just knowing that when I’m ready, that’s when I’ll throw. And we’ve had a lot of talks about that, not rushing back too quickly, not waiting too long, knowing I’ve got to get back out there at some point. So that’s been huge.”

On where he feels like he’s at in getting back to 100%

“Yeah, absolutely. I’m super happy with where I’m at right now and how I felt today, and I feel great right now. So I think the post stuff is really what tells me how I’m feeling and that kind of thing. I’m happy with it, and it went just about how I expected it to go.”

On if it was a big deal to get out of the inning unscathed

“Yeah, absolutely. Obviously I would have been mad in the moment or that kind of thing, but for the most part, I was mainly just kind of seeing how I was going to feel. I think that was the biggest part for me is runs are going to be given up, hits are going to be given up at some point, it’s just kind of part of it. But I think it was huge for me.

Also, just because it was a little bit of a confidence builder, as well. I think there’s both sides to it.”

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