How Tennessee baseball surged to a Top 5 national ranking

Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello durig the college baseball game against Western Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.Kns Ut Baseball
Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello durig the college baseball game against Western Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.Kns Ut Baseball /

In year four as head coach of the Tennessee baseball program, Tony Vitello is doing something special on Rocky Top. Over 30 games into the season, Vitello’s team has outscored its opponents 216-118, winning each contest by roughly three runs.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but in the SEC “it just means more”. It’s been the top college football conference in the country for a considerable number of years, and there are always multiple teams in the men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments. Yet still, baseball is where the Southeastern conference may be its deepest.

The conference boasts seven teams in the nation’s top 25, securing all of the top five spots in the country. Rebuilding a baseball program is difficult as is, but rebuilding in the SEC? Now that’s near impossible. But Vitello, who inherited a ball club that went 7-21 in conference play and finished seventh in the SEC East in 2017, has completely flipped the script on baseball in Knoxville.

Now the No. 4 team in the nation, Tennessee baseball boasts a 25-5 overall record. One thing can be heard as clear and true as the “ping” of a metal bat slicing through the East Tennessee mountain fog: Tony Vitello has turned the University of Tennessee into a baseball school.

What’s made this season so spectacular thus far is that the Vols aren’t just beating down on their non-conference opponents. After opening SEC play on the road against the Georgia Bulldogs on March 19, Tony Vitello’s squad took two of three contests in Athens, Ga., swept the LSU Tigers in Knoxville, Tenn. and won another series against the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Vols looked to catcher Conor Pavolony and utility fielder Max Ferguson to lead the team in 2021, but input from unsung heroes has made them the successful squad they are today. Take junior infielder Jake Rucker, for example. The Greenbrier, Tenn. native has started 29 of 30 games for the Vols at third base, batting .348 with four home runs and 29 RBI’s in 112 at-bats.

No one has been more crucial to the team’s success, however, than senior Liam Spence. Spence, who has started 28 games for Tennessee baseball as a designated hitter and shortstop, leads the SEC in batting average (.404) and is top 10 in OPS (1.090). He leads Vitello’s crew in hits (42) and runs (32) while accounting for 21 putouts and a .963 fielding percentage from the six spot.

Freshman Blade Tidwell, who hails from Loretto, Tenn. has thus far led the Volunteers’ pitching staff. The young right-handed starter has compiled a 4-1 record that features, a 2.58 ERA and 39 strikeouts over 38.1 innings. He ranks second on the team in K’s, behind junior right-hander Chad Dallas with 49.

Vitello’s Vols kick off their three-game home series against the Florida Gators on Friday, April 9, at 6:30 pm. Tickets for the evening contest at Lindsey Nelson Stadium are supposedly selling for upwards of $160 on secondary markets.

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Things won’t get easier for the diamond Vols after this series, either. Tennessee baseball has a three-game stretch with the No. 1 ranked Vanderbilt Commodores later this month and will face two more top 15 teams, the Arkansas Razorbacks and South Carolina Gamecocks, in May.