Vitello believes pitching can carry his squad
Tennessee used strong pitching to win 40 games and to return the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and they are hoping for similar success on the mound in 2020.
Gone are Garrett Stallings and Zach Linginfelter, a duo that started 20 SEC games last season, and bullpen arms Andrew Schultz and Richard Jackson.
The loss of Stallings is a big one for Tennessee. Stallings made a huge jump from his junior to senior season using a revamped breaking ball to post a 3.33 ERA as well as securing two complete game shutout wins in SEC play.
Luckily for Tony Vitello, the Vols have a different Garrett that appears primed to take over Stallings’ role as a Friday night starter.
After an offseason that saw him boost his fastball up to a 100 mph and improve his breaking ball, Garrett Crochet seems ready for a breakout season. The tall left-hander earned a 4.02 ERA in a sophomore campaign that saw him used as a bullpen arm and a weekend starter.
Crochet’s garnered plenty of hype this offseason being named to a plethora of All-American teams while being projected as a top 10 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.
Tennessee’s Saturday starter from a year ago, Zach Linginfelter, is gone, but that may not be the worst news for the Vols. The Sevierville native turned in a 5.64 ERA in his senior campaign and struggled mightily in SEC play turning in a 2-5 record and 7.87 ERA.
Linginfelter’s Saturday role looks like it may be handed to another Sevierville native in junior Chase Wallace. Wallace made just 25 appearances in his first two seasons in Knoxville but impressed in his limited action earning a 2.57 ERA and striking out 23 batters.
“He’s been outstanding,” Vitello said. “He’s been pitch-for-pitch as good as anybody. I remember one inning he didn’t really have that presence that he’s had all semester long. … The rest he’s been mister consistent with his approach, his attitude, his delivery. Everything you can list off.”
After a strong freshman campaign that saw him earn a 4-1 record and 2.18 ERA, Camden Sewell seemed poised to earn a weekend starting role in 2020. However, injuries set Sewell back in the offseason and as of now Sewell won’t start the season in the weekend rotation.
“He’s anxious to start, as are most guys,” Vitello said. “He’s kind of a swing guy for us. I could see him doing a variety of things. Closing a game if we need it, starting a game if we need it or somewhere in between as well. … If the first weekend were to start tomorrow, we’d probably bring him out of the pen.”
Sewell could be in for a role similar to Garrett Crochet’s the first half of the 2019 season. Serving as a long inning relief pitcher that can eat up four to five innings after a bad start.
Tennessee has a couple options they could use for its last weekend starter, but junior Sean Hunley seems like the most likely candidate. The Mt. Juliet, Tennessee native is a pitch to contact pitcher that’s consistently gotten outs in his first two years on Rocky Top.
Last season, Hunley recorded a 2.60 ERA while walking just 12 batters in his 45 innings pitched. Hunley didn’t shy away from the big moments either earning a two inning save in a must win game at Florida and starting a regional game.
“He probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves sometimes,” Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson said. “He’s not going to throw up crazy velocity numbers, but he just gets outs. I don’t think the situation up to this point has ever fazed him. … At the end of the day you look up and his numbers are pretty good.”
Tennessee lost two bullpen arms from last season’s team in Andrew Schultz and Richard Jackson.
Schultz left school after being selected in the MLB Draft. The hard-throwing right hander flashed elite potential in Knoxville striking out 39 batters in 25 innings pitched in his junior campaign. Similar to Linginfelter, Schultz struggled when conference play rolled around earning a 6.00 ERA in SEC play. Schultz did recover late in the season giving the Vols a couple solid innings in the Chapel Hill regional.
Jackson reinvented his game in his senior season transitioning to a submarine pitcher. Jackson became a great spot pitcher for Tennessee in 2019 1.40 ERA in 19.1 innings.
Tennessee’s best bullpen arm from 2019 is back as left-hander Redmond Walsh posted a 1.38 ERA in 45.2 innings while earning a team high nine saves. Walsh seemed to settle mostly into a closer role in his sophomore campaign, but Vitello doesn’t plan to put a label on the former Alcoa High School standout.
“I think the college coaches I’ve learned from and the ones that are more experienced than me would answer the same way I’m thinking,” Vitello said. “Our season is about third in length of a big-league season, so our games are technically more valuable. We can’t afford to wait around to the ninth inning. If there’s a crucial moment in the sixth, seventh or eighth you go to the guy you think is most likely to get out of that.”
Vitello seems pleased with the development of Elijah Pleasants saying it’s, “just a matter of time” until Pleasants becomes a weekend starter. The 6-foot-5 Clarksville native has grown more and more into his build and will likely see a big jump in usage from his freshman campaign where he recorded a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings.
Will Heflin went through senior day procedures during his redshirt-junior year, but after a regional in which he was the Vols’ most reliable arm he elected to return for his final season. Heflin built off that momentum by making the All-Star game in the Cape Code league before suffering a leg injury that will keep Heflin sidelined until SEC play
Junior college transfer Jason Rackers is a player Tennessee is excited about, but Rackers also won’t be available until conference play and hasn’t seen full preseason work as he’s dealt with mono this winter.
Drew Gilbert was another late steal by Vitello and company prying the Minnesota native away from Oregon State after the Beavers pitching coach departed. The left-hander was drafted in the 35thround of the 2019 MLB Draft and is a guy capable of contributing right away.
Gilbert’s strong stuff on the mound isn’t the only thing that stands out about Gilbert. He’s a rangy center fielder that can swing the bat and brings juice to the ballpark every day.
“Drew Gilbert is one on the mound that I think will be exciting for you all to watch because he’s so animated and high energy,” Vitello said. “He’s left-handed and he has the stuff to pitch in the SEC right away.”
Jackson Leath is another junior college transfer arm to watch out for this season. Leath’s fastball sits in the low to mid 90s and the right-hander earned a 4.20 ERA at Blinn College. The Texas native struck out a pair and didn’t allow a baserunner in his one inning pitched in the Vols’ fall scrimmage verse Clemson.