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HOOVER, Alabama – The 2022 baseball season remains nothing but prologue for No. 1 Tennessee, which has looked like a national champion since about February.
The No. 1 Volunteers, now a gaudy 53-7, won their first overall SEC Tournament title on Sunday with an 8-5 win over No. 7 seed Florida before 13,270 mostly in Orange at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Vols previously won three SEC East tournament titles from 1993-95.
“They got what they got coming to ’em,” said Tennessee coach Tony Vitello, who just took over a dead program before the 2018 season. Tennessee was below .500 in the SEC every year from 2006 through 2019 before Vitello went 20-10 in 2021 (after no SEC games because of COVID in 2020) and 25-5 this year for the Vols’ first regular season SEC title since 1995.
“When I got here, not much was expected,” six-year senior first baseman Luc Lipcius said. “We were the laughing stock of the SEC. It’s really awesome to see it come full circle.”
And there is much more coming.
Tennessee’s dominant team won on this sunny afternoon in much the same way it has stepped on and mashed through virtually every opponent all season. The Vols never trailed through all four wins and seemingly barely sweated in the previous three either – 10-1 over Vanderbilt, 5-2 over LSU and 12-2 over Kentucky, which was actually tied at 2-2 midway through Saturday night.
The NCAA Regional at Lindsay Nelson Stadium next week will be a much easier draw for the No. 1 overall seed, which will the Vols will receive on Monday.
Only in the Super Regional round – maybe – will Tennessee be tested. It wasn’t last year by LSU.
Florida (39-22), which was expected to receive one of the 16 host sites for an NCAA Regional Sunday instead of LSU after a strong late run, hung in there and scored three in the eighth and two in the ninth. But in truth, Vitello was just trying to get some pitchers some work as he used six through the final four innings.
“There’s real depth on this team, as there is on a lot of teams,” he said, “But a lot of times it will vanish because guys get wrapped up in themselves. I think you have to have sincere brotherhood or a bond going on in the locker room. And it kind of trickles down to where it’s out of our control.”
The only true test for these Brothers of Orange will likely not be until Omaha, Nebraska, at the College World Series, where, yes, Tennessee went 0-2 last year. But that past was prologue, too, and an initiation of sorts.
Much of that team started and contributed Sunday here – Lipcius, right fielder Jordan Beck, center fielder Drew Gilbert and catcher Evan Russell. That’s No. 2-4 hitters in the lineup and No. 7. Gilbert was 2-for-5 with four RBIs, including his ninth home run of the season in the ninth with nobody on for an 8-3 lead. He took tournament MVP honors as he finished 7-for-18 (.388) with nine RBIs and four extra-base hits. Lipcius had a two-run double.
There is also sophomore pitcher Blake Tidwell (2-1, 2.54 ERA in 28 innings) back from last year. He is being brought back slowly from an arm injury, but he could still go in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in July, but he can’t get back into the rotation at Tennessee. He would be there at many other SEC programs.
There is experience, youth and depth everywhere.
Take Sunday’s game, for example.
Pitcher Camden Sewell, a senior who was a key reliever last season and this season, started his first game of the season after a text to Vitello on Saturday that said, “I want the ball.”
Freshman Blake Burke started for just the 18th time out of 40 played in a 60-game season. After exiting the bench to hit his 12th home run on Saturday – a “monstrous” bash with a swing Tennessee coach Tony Vitello compared to Todd Helton’s – he earned the start Sunday, but batting eighth. He would be hitting cleanup for many SEC teams.
Both figured significantly in the win.
Sewell shut out the Gators over five innings around six hits with a strikeout and no walks to improve to 7-1. He could start a game in Omaha if the Vols are, say, undefeated and Vitello wants to set up one of his top starters for later in the week – Chase Burns (8-1, 2.61 ERA), Chase Dollander (9-0, 2.21 ERA) and Drew Beam (8-1, 2.60 ERA).
“It meant a lot,” Sewell said. “I didn’t actually find out until this morning that I’d be starting. I just enjoyed every minute of it.”
Burke went 1-for-3 with two runs scored. With the game scoreless in the top of the fifth after Russell reached first and second on an error, Burke singled him to third and scored for a 2-0 lead on a three-run double by Gilbert as the Vols took a 4-0 lead. Seth Stephenson’s single had made it 1-0. Burke reached and scored again in the sixth on the two-run double by Lipcius for a 7-0 lead.
From there, Vitello started working on the future as he started getting various pitchers some sweat. He will need some or all of them in the coming weeks and in Omaha.
Ben Joyce, the phenom who has thrown 105 mph this season and had a 1.91 ERA entering Sunday, opened the eighth. But he continues to be somewhat of an afterthought selection amid all the quality pitchers on the roster. He might be the closer at many other SEC programs. The junior transfer could go in the first round of the draft, and he couldn’t get in for more than 28 and two-thirds innings this season.
One reason for that is walk-on, sixth-year senior Redmond Walsh, who leads the team with seven saves and has a 2.29 ERA through 35 and a third innings. He tied Helton for the career saves school record at 23 on Friday and pitched the ninth.
“Really there’s guys behind the scenes waiting to get their shot,” Lipcius said of last year and this year. “Just waiting.”
At some point, some or all will be needed.
For Tennessee, the past is prologue and practice for Omaha.