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Pressure Mounting For Tennessee Baseball But Vols Remain Confident

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Rarely would the result of one game shift the narrative around a program and a coach like game three of the Knoxville Super Regional will for Tennessee baseball and Tony Vitello.

With a win, the Vols head to the College World Series for the third time in four years. Vitello will earn heaps up praise and people will claim Tennessee’s program is as strong as any in thee country.

With a loss, Tennessee will have failed to make the College World Series twice in the last three years as the nation’s top-seed. People will say Vitello struggles in the postseason and squanders too much talent.

Of course, both of those things are oversimplifications. Rooted in some truth, sure, but still oversimplifications. Tennessee still needs to achieve more in Omaha to claim it’s the nation’s best program and Vitello’s two trips to the Mecca of college baseball in seven years are great achievements at a program that was dormant before his arrival.

But that’s where Tennessee stands entering a decisive game three against four-seed Evansville. Vol fans seemed safe to book their hotels in Omaha after jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the second inning on Saturday. But the veteran Purple Aces wouldn’t go away, accelerating to a 10-5 lead and holding on for dear life to survive a ninth inning charge.

That charge was a good sign for a Tennessee team that appeared shell shocked after Evansville totaled 10 runs between the fourth and sixth inning. The Vols have responded to adversity well all season but didn’t in that moment, going down in order in both the seventh and eighth inning.

Vitello noting Tennessee’s hitter’s lack of command of the strike zone in those innings sounds like a team that was pressing. A heavy favorite pressing against a capable underdog with nothing to lose is a bad formula in baseball.

More From RTI: Tony Vitello Talks Tennessee’s Pitching Plan For Game Three Of Super Regional

That’s why the ninth inning was such a good sign even if it didn’t extend the game. Tennessee looked more like themselves and it didn’t hurt that they forced Evansville’s top bullpen arm, Shane Harris, to throw 24 high intensity pitches the day after he threw 44 pitches.

“When it is a true three-round bout or a true series in the SEC, every little thing counts,” Vitello said. “Obviously the game ended in the ninth inning, but I think it helped more than our players would even know.”

There’s plenty of reasons for Tennessee to be confident entering Sunday. Despite its own pitching concerns, the Vols’ pitching is in a healthier spot than Evansville’s entering game three. And as previously noted, Tennessee has responded well to adversity all season.

“We’ve done it,” catcher Cal Stark said. “We’ve been in a lot of one-on-one series throughout the year. We know what it looks like and we know how to treat the game, stuff like that. So, just keep that same mentality coming back to the field tomorrow.”

Tennessee has been stellar in weekend rubber matches this season, posting a 6-1 record. They haven’t lost a home series rubber match since … game three of the 2022 Knoxville Super Regional against Notre Dame.

“I think it’s a benefit,” Vitello said. “I mean you got the series on the line is what you got and you know, it helps to have a vision of what it looks like and it helps to have reps. You can pick any sport you want, but you want as many repetitions as possible. … No question it is a benefit.”

Tennessee has been in this spot and they’ve handled pressure well all year. But this is an extra level of pressure and intensity. Evansville has nothing to lose and Tennessee has a whole lot to lose. Blocking that fact out and just playing ball is the key, but it’s much easier said than done.

First pitch for Tennessee’s season defining super regional rubber match is at 6 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPNU.

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One Response

  1. It’s time to hit some dingers in our on back yard. Let our baseballs hang GUYS

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