Vitello: Tennessee baseball’s late-game heroics began early in season

Orange and White Nation

Tennessee’s Evan Russell (6) celebrates with Luc Lipcius (40) after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of an NCAA college baseball game against Alabama during the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, May 28, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Tennessee baseball continues to put the U and T in clutch this season and the team is having a lot of fun doing it.

Drew Gilbert’s grand slam against Wright State in the NCAA Knoxville Regional on Friday, June 4, was just the latest in a series of walk-offs this season for the Vols that began all the way back in February.

The Vols, after winning the first two games at Georgia Southern to open the season, found themselves down 3-1 after three innings in the series finale with the Eagles. After tying it up in the bottom half of the fourth inning, the game went into extras with senior Liam Spence hitting a walk-off grand slam in the 12th.

“That was the first moment where it was like, let’s not be good, let’s be great,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said Wednesday ahead of the Super Regional matchup with SEC-rival LSU. “It’s spiraled into a deal where the whole group thinks they can get it done in a lot of different situations.

“Everything that’s gone on this year, the extra inning games … our guys have fed off them and used them for future success.

“We certainly try and do things to make our team tougher or to make them think they can get through adverse circumstances but I think it is just a group thing. They have a thing about them about finding a way.”

Outfielder Evan Russell admitted he was more worried than some of his teammates on Friday when the Vols found themselves down 8-5 before Gilbert’s heroics.

“There were a lot of guys after the game that said they could feel we were going to win no matter what,” Russell said. “For me I was pressing a little bit. I know how tough it is to win a Regional coming through the losers bracket.

“We work and we put in a lot of time to get those moments and a lot of times, in those moments, we fail. So whenever we find success in those big moments it is pure emotion. … I think that’s what makes the fan base so good. I think that’s what makes the competition so good in college baseball. These kids are really into the game.”

Gilbert took his time rounding the bases and threw his helmet across the diamond before stomping on home plate to end the game. Coach Vitello said when he played baseball he was taught to run down the line and act in a more subdued way, but he also acknowledged the game has changed.

“These kids have earned the right to create their own thing,” he said. “As far as (Gilbert) hit that ball in that situation, you need to celebrate that.”

“There’s a lot of people on social media that doesn’t appreciate how our guys handle success,” Russell said. “It’s pure emotion out there. Drew Gilbert will never experience that moment again. It’s pure emotion.”

It was Gilbert’s second walk-off of the season with his first being against LSU on March 28, the last opponent standing in the way of the Vols returning to the College World Series for the first time since 2005.

Russell said it isn’t the same Tigers’ squad that was swept in front of a boisterous Tennessee crowd coming to Knoxville this weekend.

“The LSU staff is a pretty talented staff. That (pitcher Landon) Marceaux kid is legit. The numbers speak for themselves. He’s a true Friday-night guy in this conference.”

A win would cement Tennessee’s return to the top of the Southeastern Conference and would end the career of legendary LSU coach Paul Mainieri.

Maineri was vocal after the series loss in March saying Tennessee was “an extremely hostile environment.”

“Our fans are trying to compete with the things going on at (Arkansas’) Baum Stadium or (LSU’s) Alex Box Stadium,” Vitello said.

Tennessee and LSU will being their series at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Advance tickets sold out in 30 minutes on Wednesday. Standing-room only seats will be available for $15 at the ticket office 90 minutes before first pitch.

“It takes a lot to earn respect in this league and if you don’t get it, it’s frustrating,” Russell said. “I think the times have changed. It’s time for Tennessee to stand up and fight. I don’t think anyone is afraid to be the villain including our fan base.”

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