OMAHA, Neb. (WTVF) — Going into Tuesday’s College World Series elimination game against Texas, Tony Vitello wanted his Tennessee team to get back to what got them to Omaha in the first place. He urged them to have fun like a Little Leaguer and to regain the edge that helped them win 50 games this season.
The Volunteers arrived at the ballpark full of life, and their emotions only grew throughout the game. But it wasn’t enough in an 8-4 loss to no. 2 Texas that ends a magical season with a two-and-barbecue stint at the College World Series.
This was more like the Tennessee baseball we grew accustomed to over 50 wins this season. The team that showed up Tuesday had fight to them. It just didn’t execute, and on this field that will get you beat more times than not.
“There were just a couple situations where we didn’t come up with the big hit or the big pitch,” Tennessee designated hitter Pete Derkay said after the game. “But I felt like throughout the entire day we were fighting and kind of played more our brand of baseball. We just got beat today.”
Vitello tried to set the tone for the day, walking through the makeshift Vol walk at the team’s downtown hotel, high-fiving every kid in sight trying to set the tone for a loose and confident performance. Tennessee kept the fun going by jumping on the OTHER UT early, with a RBI double from Jordan Beck and Derkay’s run-scoring groundout providing a 2-0 lead in the second inning. The Vols first two runs in the College World Series announced they weren’t going to go quietly.
After Texas took a 4-2 lead, Tennessee tied the game in the fourth with a pair of RBI singles from Connor Pavolony and Liam Spence, much to the delight of Peyton Manning and a large UT crowd.
But those cheers quickly turned to boos in the bottom of the inning when the Tennessee dugout took issue with two of the first three Texas batters reaching base via walks. Volunteer assistant Ross Kivett pounded the dugout railing in disgust, drawing the attention of third base umpire Mike Morris who promptly ejected him. Kivett then stormed onto the field followed by an animated Tony Vitello to show their displeasure.
Any hope that Kivett’s ejection might spark the Volunteers disappeared when two batters later Silas Ardoin laced a Sean Hunley offering into right field to put Texas back on top. Beck did a good job cutting the ball off in the gap and Max Ferguson’s relay throw home was perfect, but somehow Mitchell Daly slid around the tag of Pavolony.
The Tennessee dugout and the entire first base side of T.D. Ameritrade Park erupted in jeers. A replay review was called for, and appeared to show that Daly was out, but the call on the field stood. Instead of it being 5-4 at the end of the inning, it was 6-4 and momentum completely shifted to Texas with Cam Williams’ RBI single to make it 7-4.
All the juice and emotion the Vols brought to the ballpark couldn’t help them rally from that hole.
“Disappointing day,” Vitello said. “A lot of social media can make these guys seem like they want to be the bad boys. But there’s just a bunch of kids who want to win for each other. Some guys that, off the field, you take that jersey off and they’re pretty good kids. But you throw it on and they try to do everything they can to win for Tennessee and to win for each other, and I’m honored to have been around them for 50 wins and, obviously, one loss too many.”
In two games in Omaha Tennessee was just off. Not ready for the stage in game one. Not good enough in game two. This wonderful ride of a season over just like that.
But this team has nothing to hang their heads. This group, of which seven of the top nine players in the lineup will likely move on, helped Vitello establish a winning culture that put Tennessee back on the national baseball map.
Drew Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in the regional opener, the wild dogplile after winning the Super Regional and the first College World Series trip in 16 years brought joy to a Big Orange fanbase that has been starving for something – anything – good to cheer about for quite some time.
“It just meant the world to me,” Derkay said. “I’ll remember this season for the rest of my life. To do something that this program hasn’t done in 16 years, to get back here. Ever since I stepped on this campus I said I wanted to change the culture here. And with Luke Redmond and Will (Heflin), that was just something that was always on our mind. So I’d say the lasting thing is (that) we did that. Tennessee baseball is back.”
This wasn’t the ending the Vols wanted, but it does feel like there will be more special moments in the future for this program, especially if it’s able to retain Vitello who said after the game that he has not spoken with LSU about it’s coaching vacancy.
Locking up the coach that turned this program around has to be the top item on the agenda for Tennessee’s administration moving forward. But right now it’s okay to appreciate what this team was able to accomplish, even if this wasn’t their day.
“You go to a place and you like to leave it better than you found it,” Vitello said. “And holy cow did these kids do that.”