Tony Vitello gets ejected and Kumar Rocker shines as Tennessee faces a reality check in the series opener to Vanderbilt.
Make no mistake about it, the projected No. 2 overall selection in the 2021 MLB draft showed exactly why he’s projected where he is, as Vanderbilt slowly hit Tennessee with gut-punches for nine quick innings.
The stage was set for the biggest baseball series Knoxville has ever seen, and both fans and students packed the house at Lindsey-Nelson Stadium. But it was Vanderbilt that would come away with the first win, as Tennessee could never get the bats going all night.
On Friday night, No. 2 Vanderbilt defeated No. 3 Tennessee by a score of 5-0.
In case you were wondering, Tennessee did have some fireworks set off during the game. But it wasn’t caused by any Vols homerun.
Tenessee head coach Tony Vitello was ejected in the 7th inning.
Vitello got into a heated argument with home plate umpire Darren Spagnardi over a dispute during a play involving a foul ball. After exchanging words later on and turning back to walk towards his dugout, Spagnardi ejected Vitello from the contest.
“I went to ask what the deal is,” explained Vitello after the game. “And I’d be lying to you if I said I knew exactly what the result of [that play] is.”
Jayson Gonzales was at the plate for the Commodores when he hit a foul ball a few feet off the third-base line. Before the ball crossed the third-base bag, and before it hit the ground, Vanderbilt runner Isaiah Thomas caught the ball in mid-air.
Frank Anderson, the third base coach for Tennessee, did not hold back words as he argued the call at the moment, saying that the Vanderbilt runner interfered with a catchable ball for Tennessee.
Vitello, who saved his words for the break after the inning, was ejected after his confrontation.
“It would’ve taken an awkward bounce for the thing to be fair obviously,” Vitello continued on to say after the game. “But I had never seen it. So, we didn’t get an explanation for what the rule is or how it should be handled. So that’s what I went out there to do.”
Tennessee Almost “No-Hit” as the Bats Couldn’t Wake Up
Tennessee struggled at the plate all night long.
The Vols only rattled off two hits on the night and we’re no-hit for over half the game until SS Logan Steenstra singled in the bottom of the fifth.
The other hit came from Connor Pavolony, who doubled to left field in the 7th inning.
The night went worse than anyone expected offensively, and part of that was due to the dominance of Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker.
“Kumar was throwing in outstanding fashion,” said Vitello. “I think our guys did a really good job against him in Nashville a couple of years ago. It was immediately the week after that he made a couple of adjustments and there were no looking back.”
Rocker had a 1.88 ERA heading into this matchup with Tennessee, even after a dismal outing last weekend against Georgia. The ace gave up six runs on three long-shots to the Bulldogs, which may have factored into an apparent self-imposed revenge tour by Rocker.
“Everyone in the country has had struggles against him since [the change],” said Vitello. “But there have been teams that have beat him… the guy we watched on video [against Georgia] was not the guy that was here tonight.”
On the night, the Vols finished with one walk and two hits. They left five runners on base and struck out 10 times.
Dallas Was Dealing on an Island for Tennessee
Chad Dallas had the ball as the Vols’ starter on Friday and gave Tennessee every chance he could on the mound. The junior gave up three runs in his seven innings pitched and only allowed five hits.
You really can’t ask for more out of your best pitcher.
Dallas never gave up more than one run in an inning, allowing Tennessee to only approach small margins each time they went to bat. Not to mention, five hits in seven innings to a team that has been ranked in the Top 5 of D1 Baseball the entirety of the season should be considered a strong start in a loss.
Vanderbilt’s first run came unearned as right fielder Thomas reached first base on a throwing error by Tennessee, which opened the door for second baseman Parker Noland to score on another throwing error.
Then, Gonzalez launched a solo home run in the top of the third inning, followed by a Carter Young solo homer in the top of the fourth.
The Commodores final scores came off of another throwing error by Tennessee and an RBI single in the eighth inning.
High-Level Competition Requires High-Level Play From Tennessee
Tennessee needs to buckle down and eliminate the errors, especially against a team like Vanderbilt. They are the type of next-level team to not just force you into making a mistake, but one that allows them to score in the process. Three of Vanderbilt’s five runs on Friday all came off of Tennessee’s three errors.
“It can be frustrating,” said Vitello on his team’s uncharacteristic errors.
After facing arguably the second-best collegiate pitcher in the country, Tennessee’s road ahead will get no easier. The Vols will look to rebound from their two-hit no-show against the definitive best pitcher in collegiate baseball, Jack Leiter.
The sophomore stud and projected No. 1 overall draft pick has dealt nothing but success this year, posting a 0.55 ERA and is undefeated in his seven decisions.
As for the Vols, it will be left-handed pitcher Will Heflin on the mound. Helfin is 2-1 on the year so far but will need a game of epic proportion knowing that his team’s runs will be hard to come by.
Tennessee is more likely to lose the series with Leiter on the mound tomorrow after not picking up the win against Rocker today. However, there are still a lot of takeaways, both good and bad, from the game.
First and foremost, the hope for Tennessee is that this loss was a wake-up call to the most elite tier of competition in the nation. When going against one of the most elite pitchers in the game, getting shut out is nothing to panic about. That’s just baseball, and Tennessee has not been really an offensive juggernaut all season, even though they get on base extremely well.
Tennessee will need to rebound after this game, which is more than doable, but they have an immediate test on Saturday afternoon. Friday was a tough loss, but can be looked at more of a reality check in a “welcome to the best of the best” type of way.
The Vols will have to bring their A-game for the remainder of the series. Notably, the fans inside the stadium in Knoxville did so on Friday. The team just needs to do the same this weekend.
Back at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, Tennessee will host Vanderbilt for the second game of their series on Saturday. The game will begin at 4:00 p.m. ET and ticket information for the game can be found by clicking the link here.
All Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications