April 22, 2024

Despite new pieces, the goal remains the same for Vols in 2022

Tennessee made it to the College World Series in 2021 for the first time since 2005. Tony Vitello’s team looks to maintain that success and reach newer heights in 2022.

Drew Gilbert hit a walk off grand slam against Wright State in the Knoxville regional in 2021.

Tennessee baseball’s roster may look different in 2022, but the goal remains the same. Following their most successful season in 16 years, the Vols are ranked as the No. 16 team in the nation heading into the season.

The Vols lost seven key players to last year’s MLB draft. Pitchers Jackson Leath, Sean Hunley and Chad Dallas, along with position players Liam Spence, Max Ferguson, Jake Rucker and Connor Pavolony were all drafted over the summer.

Although the locker room is not exactly the same as it was last year, Tennessee will be looking for some returning players and new faces to step up in 2022. The most glaring holes to fill are on the mound and in the middle infield.

“There’s a new personality, but the same brand name,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. “They’ve got their own flavors as far as how they like to do things. …There’s going to be different bodies and faces wearing the uniform, so that’ll change the script a little bit. That’s what’s been fun (this offseason), just watching these guys evolve into the 2022 team.”

Several new pitchers will get a chance to prove themselves early in the season. Sophomore Blade Tidwell is in line to be the Vols’ ace in 2022 but he has only recently started tossing since being shut down with shoulder soreness a month ago. Senior Camden Sewell, who will be a big bullpen piece, is sidelined for at least opening weekend.

Tennessee has some new flamethrowers in the waiting, though. Transfers Chase Dollander, Ben Joyce, Chase Burns and Ethan Smith should provide valuable innings for the Vols.

“You don’t have many big league staffs that have five guys that can touch 100 miles per hour,” senior pitcher Redmond Walsh said. “It’s just unreal. The talent and how confident these guys are.”

Walsh will have his own load to carry out of the bullpen for Tennessee as well. At the same time, he will try to be a leader to the new guys.

“I don’t think there’s a better staff in the country than those guys. It’s gonna be fun to watch them and pitch behind them,” he said.

The bigger question marks are in the middle infield. Vitello was hesitant to specify who the starters at second base and shortstop would be going into the opening weekend but that three or four players could cycle in.

Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck and Evan Russell are returning players that will have more responsibility on their shoulders in the lineup. Russell made the transition to catcher in the Fall, while Gilbert and Beck have solidified spots in the outfield. They have valuable experience that can help younger players as well.

“(Having those guys) takes pressure off the coaches, so it’s very important. They get to do our job a little bit and coach these younger guys,” Vitello said. “They’ve seen what works, what doesn’t, what it takes, what the formula is, how long the season is and they can administer the things that we’re saying to the guys.”

Tennessee opens its season on Friday against Georgia Southern at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. In 2021, the Vols swept the Eagles in Statesboro, Georgia. There is a level of excitement swirling around the team, especially after a trip to Omaha did not go as intended in 2021.

“There’s excitement every year you’re playing, but after the year we had last year, we’re trying to build off of it,” Gilbert said. “It’s a brand new team with new expectations, so we’re ready to get after it.”

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