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VOL. 42 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 9, 2018

Vitello era begins as Vols baseball launch ’18 season

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Head Coach Tony Vitello during a recent workout at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

-- Amanda Izzi | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee baseball is off to a fresh start under first-year coach Tony Vitello, and senior catcher Benito Santiago is savoring every minute of it.

Santiago was along for the ride as the Dave Serrano coaching era ended last spring after six seasons. He says Vitello has brought a new vibe to the program.

“It’s been a complete 360,” Santiago said after UT’s opening practice. “There’s been a lot more positivity. We’ve been having a lot of fun, so the culture that we’ve been changing is just go out and have fun, and there’s nothing else you need to worry about.”

Vitello, previously a top assistant and the recruiting coordinator at Arkansas (2014-17), makes his head coaching debut Feb. 16 in the opener of a three-game series against Maryland at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

As for his coaching style, Vitello says there’s plenty of hard work to go with some fun.

“You got to have some fun,” Vitello points out.

“Baseball is full of superstition and fun things like that, but we always say you have to eat your meat and potatoes before you can have your dessert. The work has got to be put in on the front end for you to have the confidence to a have a little bit of leeway to have some fun.”

Vitello was hired to make UT baseball relevant again. Tennessee is looking for its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2005 when Rod Delmonico’s next-to-last team of Vols reached the College World Series.

UT baseball faded during four years under Todd Raleigh (2008-11) followed by Serrano’s tenure. Vitello wants to bring back the good times. “Nothing’s more fun than winning,” he adds.

Santiago hoped for a lot more winning when he arrived at Tennessee as a freshman in the fall of 2014 from Pembroke Pines, Florida. Instead, he’s played in only two postseason games – first-round losses in the SEC tournament in 2015 and ’16. Last year, the Vols finished 27-25 overall, 7-21 in the SEC (seventh in East) and didn’t reach the SEC tournament.

There’s also been plenty of player turnover since Santiago’s arrival on Rocky Top. Of the nine freshmen on the 2015 roster, only Santiago, senior outfielder Brodie Leftridge and redshirt junior pitcher Richard Jackson are still on the roster. Pitcher Zach Warren was drafted after his junior season in the 14th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Santiago says the veteran Vols are ready to take over a leadership role.

“We’re extremely excited to just come in and take over the team, be leaders for them not only to follow, but if they need help, come to us and we’ll definitely have their backs,” Santiago says.

“We just want them to all learn and come together as one because that’s what’s going to win us ballgames.”

Santiago is the son of former MLB All-Star catcher Benito Santiago, but says the two have never been close.

The younger Santiago was raised by his mother, Carmen Miranda, and mentored by former MLB catcher Paul Casanova, who played 10 seasons in the Major Leagues. Santiago attended Casanova’s baseball academy in Miami, about a 30-minute drive from Pembroke Pines.

After his senior year at Coral Springs Christian Academy, Santiago was drafted in the 38th round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants.

He’s glad he stuck around at Tennessee.

“Absolutely,” Santiago says. “I feel extremely honored to be back and be able to lead the team in the right direction.”

As a freshman at Tennessee, Santiago hit .132 in 33 games, but bounced back in 2016 by hitting .309 with 33 runs scored and 18 RBIs in 53 games. Last year, Santiago hit .250 with 20 runs scored and 20 RBI in 33 games.

Santiago explains Vitello’s new vibe is refreshing.

“Just make sure that we’re having fun,” he says of the new coach’s advice. “Just make sure we’re out there doing our thing. He always preaches at the end of the day, whatever you do, just have fun doing it.”

Here’s a glimpse at some of the Vols’ top players and newcomers in 2018:

POSITION PLAYERS

Andre Lipcius

Sophomore infielder, 6-1, 195 pounds, Lafayette High, Williamsburg, Virginia

Lipcius started all 52 games last season at first base, but this season makes the move to shortstop. He hit .275 in 2017 and leads all returning players in hits (53), runs (320, doubles (11), RBIs (26), total bases (71) and stolen bases (nine). His move to shortstop shouldn’t be an issue; he played the same position in high school and hit .462 as a senior and went 6-2 on the pitcher’s mound. He was a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

Luc Lipcius

Sophomore outfielder/infielder, 6-2, 215 pounds, Lafayette High, Williamsburg, Virginia

Lipcius, twin brother of Andre Lipcius, started the last 19 games of the 2017 season as a designated hitter and for the season hit .256 with a homer and eight RBIs. He’s competing for the starting job at first base this year. Luc played for the Front Royal (Virginia) Cardinals of the Valley Baseball League last summer and was 11th in the league with a .336 batting average.

Pete Derkay

Sophomore catcher/infielder, 5-11, 220 pounds, Allatoona High, Acworth, Georgia

Derkay started 50 games last season and has the versatility to play first base, third base, catcher, designated hitter and possibly even the outfield. He was the team’s third-leading hitter last year (.288) and had team-highs in on-base percentage (.440) and walks (37). Last summer, Derkay played for the Anchorage Bucs of the Alaska Baseball League and was selected to the ABL American Team All-Star roster.

Brodie Leftridge

Senior outfielder, 6-1, 165 pounds, St. John’s College High, Baltimore, Maryland

Leftridge trails only Santiago among active UT players in terms of career games played (108) and career games started (75); Santiago has played in 119 games with 102 starts. Last season, Leftridge started 32 games, all in center field, and is projected to start at the same position this year. After hitting .302 in 2016, Leftridge slumped to .184 last season.

PITCHERS

Zach Linginfelter

Sophomore right-hander, 6-5, 225 pounds, Sevier County High, Sevierville

Linginfelter posted a 3-4 record and 3.67 ERA last year, and his 61 strikeouts in 56.1 innings was second-most on the team and the high for a returning pitcher. He’s rated No. 72 on D1Baseball’s Top 100 college prospects list and is vying for the job as Friday night starter for SEC series.

Garrett Stallings

Sophomore right-hander, 6-2, 205 pounds, Grassfield High, Chesapeake, Virginia

Stallings secured a spot as UT’s Saturday starter for SEC series last season when he appeared in 20 games with eight starts. He finished with the team’s second-lowest ERA (3.47) for a player with six or more starts; he posted a 3-4 record and 39 strikeouts in 70 innings. He’s competing with Linginfelter for the Friday night starter’s job for SEC series.

Will Neely

Junior right-hander, 5-11, 160 pounds, Hardin Valley Academy, Knoxville

Neely is the Vols’ most game-experienced pitcher with 39 appearances, 14 starts and 110 innings for his career. Last season, Neely went 3-1 with a 3.43 ERA, the lowest for a pitcher who threw 15 or more innings. He was third on the team in strikeouts (41) and led all pitchers with a .213 batting average for opponents. Neely is projected as the Sunday starter for SEC series.

Daniel Vasquez

Junior right-hander, 5-10, 185 pounds, Granite Hill High, El Cajon, California.

Like Neely, Vasquez is one of the Vols’ more experienced pitchers with 32 career appearances and six starts. Last season, Vasquez posted 30 strikeouts in 23.1 innings and finished with a 2-1 record. He had 25 strikeouts in 31 innings as a freshman. Vasquez is projected as a mid-week starter and a reliever for SEC series.

Will Heflin

Sophomore left-hander, 5-11, 177 pounds, Morristown West High, Morristown

Heflin was a two-way player as a freshman last year, doubling as a designated hitter. In 12 relief appearances, Heflin had one of the team’s best ERA’s (2.93), holding opponents to a .232 batting average in 15.1 innings. He’s competing to be the Vols’ closer this year.

NEWCOMERS

Zach Daniels

Freshman outfielder, 6-1, 200 pounds, Eagles Landing Christian Academy, Stockbridge, Georgia

Daniels was rated a top-50 prospect nationally as a high school senior and earned Rawlings-Perfect Game honorable mention All-America honors. In summer ball, Daniels helped the prestigious East Cobb (Georgia) Astros program to titles in the 18-under WWBA championship and Perfect Game Invitational title in 2016. He’s projected to get playing time in the outfield this year.

Brandon Trammell

Freshman infielder/right-handed pitcher, 6-5, 240 pounds, Bearden High, Knoxville

Trammell, a Knoxville native and son of former Vol and MLB player Bubba Trammell, will be a two-way player for Tennessee. The Bearden High School graduate chose the Vols instead of Vanderbilt, North Carolina or Florida State. He was rated the No. 8 overall recruit in the state by Perfect Game and was on the 2017 All-USA Tennessee Baseball first team.

Chase Wallace

Freshman infielder/right-handed pitcher, 6-2, 210 pounds, Sevier County High, Sevierville

Wallace, former teammate of Linginfelter at Sevier County, will be used primarily on the mound for Tennessee but could also see time elsewhere. He was rated the No. 9 right-handed pitcher in the state by Perfect Game.

Wyatt Stapp

Freshman infielder, 6-1, 180 pounds, Southlake Carroll High, Keller, Texas

Stapp had a huge fall practice with the Vols when he led the team in batting (.571) during the Orange and White Fall Series, including a 5-for-5 showing in Game 1. As a high school senior, Stapp helped Southlake Carroll (32-11-1) to the Texas Class 6A semifinals and finished with a .396 batting average and 34 RBIs. Stapp is contending for playing time this spring, probably at third base.

Garrett Crochet

Freshman left-handed pitcher, 6-5, 200 pounds, Ocean Springs High, Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Crochet shot up the recruiting rankings after a breakout senior season at Ocean Springs when he went 6-4 with a 1.48 ERA and 76 strikeouts. He chose Tennessee over Texas and opted to play for the Vols after being drafted in the 34th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.