Advertise with usContact UsRTI Team

The Early Moments That Proved Tennessee Baseball Was Capable Of Greatness

Tony Vitello
Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

An Ole Miss player bowled over a Tennessee fielder in game three of a weekend series between the Vols and Rebels during the 2018 season. In the dugout, freshman Evan Russell was the only Tennessee players that responded with fire.

Tennessee dropped the series finale 5-0, but Tony Vitello and the Vols found something in the way the freshman Russell responded. Vitello and his staff inherited a roster with a defeated mindset. But through players like Russell, incoming freshmen and results on the field, Tennessee baseball’s culture changed over the course of Vitello’s first two seasons.

Here are the moments that set Tennessee on the path to its first ever National Championship.

More From RTI: Every Record That Tennessee Baseball Broke During The 2024 Season

2018 Texas A&M Series

Seven years before Tennessee defeated Texas A&M in the College World Series finals, Vitello and the Vols won a major SEC series against the Aggies.

Tennessee took two out of three over No. 14 Texas A&M in Knoxville. It was the second of three SEC series wins for the Vols in Vitello’s first season as head coach and was the first ranked series win of the newest era of Tennessee baseball.

The SEC’s coaches picked Tennessee to finish in last place in the conference in 2018 but the Vols went from 8-22 a year prior to 12-18 in Vitello’s first season. Tennessee was a long way from where they needed to be, but it was step forward in year one.

The Team Meeting Following The End Of The 2018 Season

It was in a team meeting following the conclusion of the 2018 season that Vitello fully understood how bad the defeatist mindset of the program he inherited was.

A player said that he never believed Tennessee baseball would even make a regional. The lack of belief from certain players after a year where the Vols were likely two SEC wins away from making the NCAA Tournament was shocking.

Vitello drew a line in the sand and made it clear to players what the program was going to become and that they would not take a backseat to anyone in the SEC. It didn’t revolutionize the program’s mindset over night but it sparked change.

A Garrett Stallings Gem Gives Tennessee A Program Defining Win

Tennessee was excellent in pre conference play in 2019. But once SEC play began, it looked like the same old Vols. Tennessee started  4-8 in its first 12 conference games and looked like they would be fighting an uphill battle to make the SEC Tournament.

That’s where things stood when No. 2 Georgia came to Lindsey Nelson Stadium at the halfway point of conference play. Tennessee scratched off two runs against Georgia ace Emerson Hancock to win the Thursday night series opener 2-0.

Then Tennessee’s ace Garrett Stallings tossed a complete game shutout to clinch the series victory in game two. It gave the Vols a crucial series win for their postseason hopes and was the first top 10 series win of Vitello’s tenure.

While many players on the 2018 team and some on the 2019 team lacked confidence, veterans like Stallings, Garrett Crochet, Andre and Luc Lipcius as well as underclassmen like Evan Russell, Redmond Walsh and Sean Hunley believed in themselves and the program. They were instrumental in Vitello’s early days.

Max Ferguson’s Injury At Kentucky

It was one week later when Tennessee went to Lexington and swept Kentucky to improve to 9-9 in SEC play. The biggest moment came in game three when Max Ferguson broke his hand on a hit-by pitch. Ferguson didn’t want to leave the game, telling his coaches in the dugout that maximum effort was the bare minimum standard of the program.

That mindset was clear in a freshman class that included Ferguson, Jake Rucker, Camden Sewell, Trey Lipscomb and Connor Pavolony. From day one on campus, those players had the competitiveness and mindset to make Tennessee a well respected program again.

Ferguson’s response to his injury showed what that group was about. Director of Baseball Performance Quentin Eberhardt still uses the quote often.

Ricky Martinez Big Swing

Tennessee was 10-14 in SEC play entering the final two weeks of the season in 2019. With a road trip to Florida and a home series against Ole Miss, Tennessee needed to go 4-2 to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Vols split the first two games at Florida and desperately needed a game three win. They trailed 4-1 in the seventh inning when Ricky Martinez hit a three-run homer into the left field bleachers.

Martinez was a stout defensive shortstop and a strong contact hitter, finishing the season with a .279 batting average. He was not a power hitter. The game tying home run at Florida was his only long ball of the season. It couldn’t have come at a better time as Tennessee went on to win 5-4 and Sean Hunley pitched three scoreless innings to close out the game.

Stallings. Again.

Stallings did it again one week later, pitching a complete game shutout in game one of the series against No. 15 Ole Miss.

Tennessee won the next day to improve to 14-15 in SEC play and clinch the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years.

A Taste Of The Postseason

What would have been a game-tying ninth inning home run from Christian Scott fell into Auburn right fielder Steven Williams’ glove at the warning track.

Tennessee’s stay at the SEC Tournament ended after one game and Scott’s fly out said a lot about where the program was. The Vols were close but still had much more work to do.

The same thing was proven a week later when Tennessee finished in second place in the Chapel Hill Regional. When the Vols returned to Knoxville, many of the veteran players who a year before lacked confidence couldn’t believe what they had been missing out on.

Tennessee knew it could win and knew they would win sooner rather than later.

July 17, 2019

Drew Gilbert committed to the Vols just weeks before he would enroll in classes at Tennessee. Gilbert was originally committed to Oregon State but backed off his commitment after a head coaching change.

Vitello has oft talked about how Gilbert changed his life because of the way he affected the Tennessee baseball program. Combining Gilbert with the a handful of key veterans and the rising sophomore class gave the Vols exactly what they needed to reach the next level.

Who knows what would have happened in the lost 2020 season, but Tennessee was incredibly talented. A year later, the Vols made it to the College World Series for the first time in 16 years. It kickstarted the best four-year stretch in program history culminating in its first National Championship.

Similar Articles


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tweet Us