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VOL. 43 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 8, 2019

Vols have new field, fresh hope for reaching postseason

By Chip Cirillo

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Tony Vitello will begin his second season as Tennessee’s baseball coach with a new playing surface on the Volunteers’ home field, a $1.2 million conversion from grass to artificial turf that is scheduled to be completed in time for UT’s season opener against Appalachian State on Feb. 15.

Nearly an inch of snow covered the field last week, but he’s excited about the transformation.

“It’s enormous for us,” Vitello says. “It’s going to help so much with practice and it will definitely help on game day.”

The new surface, more durable than grass, will also help with camps and tournaments in the summer and fall.

“Everything is state of the art, literally, because it’s going to be the first of its kind in the country,” Vitello adds. “We got the expensive stuff. It’s the first with the style that we have.”

The infield grass is shorter, like major league fields, and will play differently than the outfield grass.

“When the trees in those mountains in our background turn green and that turf is green every day and looks pristine, it’s going to make for one of the better settings in all of college baseball,” Vitello says.

Tennessee went 29-27, including a 12-18 in the Southeastern Conference, in his first year as coach in 2018, and finished last in the SEC East Division.

“We tried to learn the environment and also just kind of assess what needed to be done here,” Vitello says. “We have a young staff and we got to know the players, and now the players know exactly what to expect from us.”

Tennessee finished one victory short of qualifying for the SEC Tournament and the 30-win milestone. Missouri rallied to beat UT 8-3 in the regular-season finale, ending the Vols’ season and sending the Tigers to the tournament.

The Vols’ top-ranked basketball team is a nearby point of reference for Vitello as he tries to rebuild the program.

“They really play together as a team,” he says. “They’re always extremely competitive, they handle adversity well and also it’s a group that carries itself in a first-class manner whether it be before, during or after a game, on the court or off the (court),” Vitello says. “While it’s a different sport … that’s kind of a version of what we’re looking to do.”

Tennessee faces brutal competition in the SEC with Vanderbilt and LSU ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in Baseball America’s preseason national rankings. There are eight SEC teams in Baseball America’s Top 25.

“It’s a pleasure, it’s an honor and it’s also a headache and can be stressful if you let it get to you,” Vitello says. “It’s an absolute war zone.”

Vitello says flaws and mistakes are exposed more in the SEC than any other conference in the country, and the skill level is comparable to Class AA baseball in the minor leagues.

The Vols haven’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC East since 2005, the last year they qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Sean Hunley, a Freshman All-America pick in 2018, returns after going a team-best 7-3 with a 2.64 earned run average last year. The 6-foot-4 right-hander from Mt. Juliet became the first UT freshman to start a season 6-0.

“I didn’t do so hot in fall ball, and I figured I needed to work a little harder,” Hunley says. “I came back from winter break, and it all kind of worked out for me.”

Hunley, who allowed only 18 walks in 75 innings, throws 86-91 mph.

“I’m not one of those guys that will overpower anybody, but my philosophy as a pitcher would be to make the hitter miss by just a half-inch,” Hunley explains. “If I can make him miss by a half-inch, then I’m doing my job.”

Last year, he focused on throwing first-pitch fastballs before switching to off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance. His arsenal includes two-seam and four-seam fastballs, a changeup and a slider. He’s developing a curveball.

Hunley was one of five future SEC players on the team during his senior year at Mt. Juliet in 2017.

“We had four SEC pitchers and an SEC catcher,” Hunley says. “We had all kinds of pitching, but our hitting wasn’t there, so we’d throw one-hitters and we’d still lose, which was kind of weird.”

Despite the wealth of pitching talent, Mt. Juliet underachieved at 19-14-1 as its season ended in the District 9-AAA tournament that year.

Hunley will get run support this year from Vols shortstop Andre Lipcius, who led the team with a .315 batting average in 2018. The junior had seven homers and 42 RBI last year.

“He actually told me that he enjoys hitting off-speed (pitches), which is kind of different for a three-hole hitter, which he was last year,” Hunley points out. “He loves sitting on sliders, and you might mix in a fastball and he hammers it. He hits every pitch that you throw to him.”

Vitello says pitching and defense will be UT’s strengths and hopes the offense will improve from 2018 when UT ranked last in the SEC in batting average (.254) and runs scored (295).

Zach Linginfelter, a 6-foot-5 junior who struck out a career-high 71 in 55 innings last year, figures to be a strong presence on the mound. He returned to UT after being drafted in the 19th round by Washington last June.

“I think we’ve got a chance to have eight to 10 players drafted off this team if the season goes well,” Vitello says.

Utilityman Jay Charleston (21 stolen bases, .285, 26 RBI), pitcher Will Neely (4-2) and pitcher Garrett Stallings (5-5) should also play big roles.

Four freshmen from Middle Tennessee will try to make an impact: pitcher Caleb Pearson (Brentwood), pitcher Elijah Pleasants (Rossview), infielder Jake Rucker (Pope John Paul II) and outfielder Christian Scott (Rossview).

The UT roster includes 11 players from East Tennessee.

Left-handers Redmond Walsh (team-best 2.04 ERA in 2018) and Will Heflin (4-3, 5.68 ERA) could become bullpen weapons for UT.

Vitello says he hopes he can get the Vols back to the College World Series in the future although it’s hard to predict when. Tennessee hasn’t been to Omaha since 2005.

“It’s been too long,” adds Vitello, a former Arkansas assistant. “The fans are dying for it and every kid dreams of it. I’ve only been one time and it was a blur, so I’m as anxious as any coach in the country to get back.”

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