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Everything Tennessee HC Tony Vitello Said Ahead Of Knoxville Regional

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello met with the local media on Wednesday afternoon before the Vols open up NCAA Tournament play this weekend at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Vitello discussed the Vols’ potential opponent at the Knoxville Regional, the pitching plan and much more. Here’s everything Vitello said on Wednesday afternoon.

More From RTI: AJ Russell’s Status Uncertain For This Weekend’s Knoxville Regional

On what stands out about Northern Kentucky

“Scrappy is a word that comes up often and I’m referring to their team. I think we have the ability to do that too but I think by nature that’s been who they are. They’re very well coached and it’s easy if you hear their coach speak. He’s very well spoken. Since they’ve been there, they’re certainly no stranger to SEC opponents or SEC caliber opponents. I know they’ve played Kentucky and gone in and beaten Mississippi State before. They’ve beaten Missouri. Then on top of that, to win their league you have to beat a team like Wright State which obviously everyone standing here, not just me, has a ton of respect for that program. On offense, very aggressive. Not just at the plate but on the bases and then we’ll see a right-handed pitcher (Tanner) Gillis that had an outstanding year for them. And he’s older. He’s been there, done that. So with that experience I’m sure he knows what to expect and how to handle with what comes with a regional.”

On if he’ll make any changes with the starting pitching this week

“Not much. I think if we would have gone through that tournament and done some crazy things like Causey or Stam(os) say, ‘I’ve got an inning for you’ in the final or Beam’s always up for taking the ball. The one thing about last week is it certainly was a long week and we had a lot of innings to play but we used, positionally, the bench a little bit and then pitching wise I thought we spread things out kind of how we would on a normal week. If anything, some guys were a little shorter or a little less work than normal. So I think it’s just the start of a new weekend and it’s certainly the start of a new tournament which can sort of feel like the start of a new season. So what happened in the regular season is great but it’s over with. What happened in Hoover was a lot of fun but it’s over with. This is a fresh start and it’s four teams vying to be the one team that wins it.”

On if he’s superstitious about the No. 1 overall seed not winning the NCAA Tournament since 1999

“No. I just don’t think— there’s a label there but there’s a lot of reasons why it doesn’t have greater value than any of the other eight seeds. To be a top eight seed you certainly meet a criteria that’s unique. Really to be in the top 16 is kind of a goal of everybody. It’s so fun to play this weekend at home but it doesn’t mean that road teams can’t and won’t win. I can promise you this, we did not inherit the 64th best team in the tournament. After our game on Friday there’s no reseeding that goes on. So there’s certainly a limited amount of value that comes with that. Everybody is good and only one team, like I said, can come out of this four. You just have to find a way to do that and it all starts with putting your best foot forward on Friday.”

On AJ Russell’s availability

“We will see. He has been eager to compete, which obviously he has done sparingly. We have tried to meet him in the middle of what is the best thing to do. But he has been sore. To this point, we have probably pressed it as good as we can. If it was a normal weekend, he probably wouldn’t pitch. But as we made it to the fifth game of the week and he had some time to bounce back, he wanted the ball and was not going to go more than an inning. I think if he is available and he does throw, same thing. No more than two or three outs. If not, it has been a staff that has had to manufacture outs or operate without him other than him being in the dugout, which would certainly add value as well.”

On the difference in Zander Sechrist the past two starts

“I think if I was in his corner I would say, well the coaching staff didn’t cut him short. You talk about each weekend has a little different flavor in how it’s going. We made a quick decision two weeks ago, but the last two starts he’s taken the ball and thrown with conviction and made us take the ball out of his hand. He could argue, if I was in his corner, that the time wasn’t even right to do that. He was cooking pretty good. But to go back to the tournament philosophy, we didn’t want to gas anybody out, so we felt it was good to get him out when we did at the pitch count we had thought about. Really, I think him being himself. He keeps getting better every day that he’s been on our campus. He’s been throwing the ball with conviction.”

On the difference in throwing the ball with conviction and trying to do too much

“You start to see bad misses. There’s a long list of things, but one that pops into my head, and it’s not just applied to him, the misses are poor. They’re either well out of the zone and you’re not throwing strikes, or when you’re supposed to throw to one side of the plate, it floats to the other. Or even if you do hit your target, it’s not a pitch that is through its target – again, it floats to it – regardless of what style pitch it is.”

On if Kavares Tears will shift back to cleanup or the lineup to stay the same

“It’s been a busy week. We haven’t even gotten to that spot yet. We’ve kind of talked about this team and the unique nature it is. They’ve had success but we’ve kind of had this rubik’s cube deal going on with our bullpen and kind of with our starting rotation for a while there. That’s settled down. What we would do in a game four situation or even game five situation has evolved. The lineup has too. I think it’s relatively fluid but I think we have kind of settled in to who our guys need to be and how the guys will come off the bench in certain situations.”

On where freshman shortstop Dean Curley’s play is right now

“For baseball, you’ve got to take a big sample size. Based off the phone interview I had today, my sense is when people watch, they are into it, they’re passionate. So, they get frustrated based off two at-bats or get frustrated based off one inning. It stinks. You have to be patient as a baseball coach, but you kind of have to take a summary of statistics or sample size. If you take Dean’s sample size, whether it’s been the whole season, one week or one month, he’s pretty dang consistent.”

On differences and similarities of last year’s Southern Miss team and this year’s Southern Miss team

“Well, new head coach but a coach who was a major part of what they are doing. I think you’re going to see some similarities out of the pitching staff and then just that grit that that program has always had. They had a lot of success under coach [Scott] Berry and there was assistant coaches who took other jobs as head coaches or just moved on and things like that. Kind of that grit and that competitiveness – I guess you call it a blue collar approach – or whatever you want to for brevity sake. They are going to hook it up. They will get after it. Kind of like their fans got after us last year when we were down there last year. It was a fun and intense environment. We were pushed to the absolute brink. It kind of went both ways and it was a very competitive series. The one thing about these regionals or if you look at the entire thing, as a fan, I wouldn’t hope that our players are doing this, but the only team you’re guaranteed to play as of now is Northern Kentucky. We certainly have to play one other team. You see it so often what you think is going to happen doesn’t. This will be chaos, not just in our regional but all across the country.”

On the benefits to seeing what he saw from the pitching staff at the SEC Tournament:

“It was huge. I think the biggest thing was for those guys to put their cleats in the dirt, and have that crowd, and the opponent that certainly brings talent to the table, and be in those situations where you kind of have to grasp mentally what’s going on. If you push aside all of the peripheral stuff, the fanfare and how cool that tournament is, it’s just baseball. So if you’re going to play, you might as well enjoy it and the easiest way to get off to a start of enjoying it is to be the best version of yourself. And I think you saw (Andrew), Zander (Sechrist) and Marcus Phillips be the very best version of themselves, and if they do that, then the pitching staff kind of goes from this to that.

“So we have confidence in those guys and Frank (Anderson) said it halfway through the year, he can’t remember a staff where the numbers are spread out this evenly. Obviously with Drew Beam leading the way, but even for the most part, some of his outings ending shorter. Not because he’s not capable, but we trust the guys in the bullpen. We trust those guys and now they can trust themselves a little bit easier because they can take confidence on what they’ve done.”

How encouraging it was for Billy Amick to hit some baseballs hard on Sunday:

“Yeah, I mean, you knew it was coming. The guys say it in the corner of the dugout all the time, the group that’s over there. He’s gotta lead the country in hard-contact outs. Or balls — one time someone said — balls over 100 (mph) exit velocity that end up in someone’s glove. If you’re a good hitter, that’s part of the deal. (Alex) Bregman was like in college. I remember his junior year, he was scolding balls all over the place, and sometimes they go in the guy’s glove. That’s part of the deal.

“But we knew something would happen for him good and it would be a flare hit and everybody would laugh about it. Or it would be a big hit and everybody would celebrate it. We’ll take either one, but I kind of like the way it went down.”

On the health of the team heading into the NCAA Tournament:

“Yeah, I think that’s the one guy (AJ Russell) you don’t know exactly if he’ll be available or what would be available, but as I kind of scan down the deal, it was nice (Cannon) Peebles caught the way he did, and that he and (Charlie Taylor) have been involved, so that the three of those guys (along with Cal Stark) can be trusted in any situation. Chuck has caught in Omaha, not just a regional. Those guys can be trusted in any situation, but I think they can all help each other manage the workload a little bit, too. Those catchers in Hoover on every team, my day was pointing it out, they’re just soaking wet, so the fact that we could balance that out a little bit was huge, too.”

“And then positionally, our nutritionist (XX) and of course (Quentin Eberhardt), they were so crazy hard, along with (trainer Jeff Wood), just to make sure these guys are not just feeling okay, but actually attacking the process of being hydrated, using recovery tools or getting rest or whatever it might be. So come Friday, everybody in the country will probably need to calm down more than they need rest.”

If they handled Monday and Tuesday any differently after playing five games in five days at the SEC Tournament:

“No, not really. We almost — so we played earlier in the season without a Tuesday game against Auburn, so what we try to do is replicate that week prior to going to Auburn as best as possible. The one added benefit we get out of that, is we don’t have to trouble. So we get to stay here and Monday, we made a light lighter than that particular week because even though the guys got a flight home, everybody got home fairly late. Pretty much similar routine, and then of course for everybody in the country, you get the NCAA practice tomorrow which will be an hour and 15 minutes, and I’ve seen it before when you try to go an hour and 15, and one second. Doesn’t work out too well.”

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