Nichols: In Vanderbilt series, Vitello faces greatest test (and celebration) yet

Under Tony Vitello, Tennessee baseball has reached heights not seen since Rod Delmonico. And the hype surrounding this weekend proves Vitello is gaining ground in more than just the record books.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or deep, deep underground), you probably know that Tennessee is really good at baseball this season.

The Vols used to be good at baseball, too. This program has reached the College World Series in 1951, 1995, 2001 and 2005 — as evidenced on the outfield wall at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

This season, the Vols could add a fifth appearance to that list. It would be the first time in 16 years for a program that, in the 10 years after Rod Delmonico’s firing, ran as dry as the Sahara.

Not now, though. Not since the arrival of Tony Vitello, who has opened the floodgates by going 69-47 so far in four years as head coach, with an 83-29 clip in the last three years.

Not since Vitello’s Vols swept then-No. 14 LSU for the first marquee moment of the season in late March.

Not since 1970, which was the last time Tennessee opened conference play with four straight conference series wins before last Saturday night’s series-clinching, SEC East-topping win over No. 9 Florida.

Not since Tennessee beat Western Carolina on Tuesday, as Max Ferguson knocked six RBIs to lead Tennessee in a 14-12 victory puts the Vols at 28 wins, the most in the country.

Not since ticket prices for this weekend’s series against No. 2 Vanderbilt have skyrocketed, going as high as $500 because people want to be a part of the newest intimidating environment in college baseball.

Not since the Legends of Lindsey Nelson came along and created that environment in early March, only to up the ante by wreaking so much havoc against LSU that Paul Mainieri’s complaints became national news.

And, maybe, not even since that first sweep of the 2021 season against Georgia Southern, when Drew Gilbert mouthed off, the benches cleared, and Tennessee showed the first signs of a swagger that’s carried this team to heights not seen since the days when Delmonico was working wonders in Omaha.

Don’t get it twisted, either: Delmonico remains the standard at Tennessee, despite what Mike Hamilton told ESPN after the Vols’ head coach was fired.

In 18 years in Knoxville, Delmonico went 699-396.

In the 10 years after his firing, Todd Raleigh and Dave Serrano led the Vols to a combined 209-223.

A reflection of another brilliant move in the career of Mike Hamilton, that mediocrity was cracked, dried and, seemingly, accepted by the time John Currie arrived.

But Dave Serrano’s resignation in March of 2017 left a gap to be filled.

And Currie, for the mess he helped create in Neyland Stadium, deserves credit for what he did at Lindsey Nelson Stadium when he introduced Tony Vitello.

At the time, Vitello was a gamble. He had never been a head coach, just an assistant and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas for four years. Before that, he had served three years in the same role at TCU.

But he’s built quite a résumé in Knoxville.

In his four years on Rocky Top, Vitello has brought the Vols to heights not seen since Delmonico — literally.

After a 29-27 2018 season, 2019 brought a sudden resurgence. The Vols went 40-21 to reach their first NCAA Regional since 2005, and baseball fans around Knoxville began to murmur.

Last year, a team with future MLB first-rounder Garret Crochet on the mound shot out to a 15-2 start before COVID-19 intervened, and those same fans were disappointed at what could’ve been.

But this year? Even without Crochet, who’s dealing for the Chicago White Sox; or Alerick Soularie, who’s playing High-A ball in Iowa; or even preseason All-American selection Jackson Leath, who passed on the draft, only to suffer a season-ending injury in February; these Vols are good.

Tennessee currently holds its highest ranking in program history — No. 3 in the nation in the Perfect Game and USA Today polls. UT is also tied for first in the Southeastern Conference, and it shares the lead for the SEC East with this weekend’s opponent: Vanderbilt.

Moreover, Vitello has been tabbed as Perfect Game’s Midseason Coach of the Year, UT is off to its best conference start since 2004, freshman ace Blade Tidwell has been awarded freshman All-American honors, and Vols senior shortstop Liam Spence has been named to USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Midseason Award watch list.

Now, those same fans who began to murmur have since reached a fever pitch as Vitello’s Vols face their toughest test yet: a top-five showdown against an in-state rival.

The second-ranked Commodores come into Knoxville having won two of the last five College World Series. And Tim Corbin’s weekend pitching staff is the stuff of nightmares, as the ‘Dores boast arguably two of the best starters in college baseball.

Friday’s starter is Kumar Rocker, the 2020 Preseason All-American who was voted Most Outstanding Player in the 2019 College World Series. This season, Rocker is 7-1, with a 1.88 ERA.

Saturday, Tennessee will face Jack Leiter, who has emerged this season as perhaps the most powerful starter in college baseball. Leiter is a perfect 7-0 with an 0.55 ERA, and he leads Division I baseball with 71 strikeouts.

Vanderbilt suffered a chink in the armor last weekend in a series loss to unranked Georgia. The Bulldogs blasted nine home runs in three games, so Vandy will have plenty of motivation after dismantling Eastern Kentucky earlier this week.

But Tennessee has statistics on its side, too. The Vols and Commodores have split the last 10 games between the programs, and Tennessee leads the series history 176-163-2. 

Moreover, the Vols’ swagger is one of this team’s strongest points.

“We’re going to win,” said catcher Connor Pavolony last weekend. “Period. Any way we have to, we’re going to get it done. I think you see it a lot, that we play for each other. It’s passing the torch, knowing the guy behind you’d going to get it done. We just want to win.”

That mindset is due to Vitello, who has built this team to believe it can beat anyone in the country.

And this weekend, that opponent just so happens to be an in-state opponent that’s turned into one of college baseball’s juggernauts.

If Tennessee wins its series against Vanderbilt, it will mark another firm step in Vitello establishing a juggernaut of his own.

But his efforts so far should be celebrated, too. History has already been made this season, as evidenced by the rankings, statistics and consecutive series that haven’t been won since 1970.

Hysteria has been created, and Vitello’s coaching job has helped focus all eyes in college baseball on Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend.

Tony Vitello isn’t focused on the history or the hysteria, though.

When asked about the Vols’ consecutive SEC series win record, Vitello said they don’t really have time to appreciate it now, that they’ll do it after the season.

During that same statement, he turned his head to gaze out his window toward the outfield wall — toward what hasn’t been done since 1951, 1995, 2001 or 2005.

Three of those four College World Series appearances were in the days of Delmonico. And while Tennessee’s current coach isn’t looking in the rearview mirror, maybe Tennessee’s former coach should.

Because Vitello is gaining ground fast. And more success this weekend could give him another big boost.