The Tennessee Volunteer baseball program reached unprecedented success in the 2021 regular season under head coach Tony Vitello.
The Vols finished first in the SEC East division and garnered a No.4 ranking nationally in multiple polls. Vitello led UT to 40 wins for the second straight full season. It marks the first time in program history that Tennessee has won five road series in conference play. Sixteen wins away from Lindsey Nelson also sets a new record for road victories in a season.
Many players pitched in and found new roles and heightened success. Some stayed wildly consistent and reliable. Nonetheless, it was a collective approach that allowed the Vols to earn significant honors.
And while the SEC may have struck out by not awarding Vitello appropriately, we here at Fanrun announce that Tony V is not just the Coach of the Year in college baseball, he is Coach of the Universe.
Yes, even the aliens recognize Vitello’s greatness. (We had to exclude the coach from the Most Handsome category to avoid a lopsided victory, sorry ladies.)
Without further ado, here are your 2021 Tennessee baseball superlatives.
Tennessee’s Most Improved
As a former 14th round selection of the Boston Red Sox, Jordan Beck decided to come to Rocky Top to hone his craft before making the leap to the professional ranks. And improve he has.
The sophomore right fielder made quite the impact early on this season, blasting three home runs and 10 RBI through his first five games of 2021. He even provided a walk-off dinger against in-state opponent ETSU on March 16.
Beck experienced growing pains after the early success. But he adjusted quickly. After seeing his batting average drop to .215 after the LSU series (March 28), the righty made adjustments at the plate that paid off in a big way. Beck finished the regular season hitting .276 while leading the Vols in home runs with 13. While his average is almost on the nose of his 2020 pace, Beck’s approach in the box is clearly different. He has shown patience and the ability to sacrifice runners at any given time. Beck’s slugging percentage has also risen over .060 since last season.
Most importantly, Beck’s ability to handle breaking pitches has improved greatly. He also flashes an above-average glove and excellent arm in the right corner.
Sean Hunley was the most reliable pitcher for Tennessee. Appearing in 27 games, the senior led the team in WHIP (.93) and saves (7). Hunley also recorded seven wins for the Vols out of the pen.
While the right-hander has been solid throughout his Tennessee career, we felt obligated to include Hunley by splitting this category into positions.
Hunley has compiled an 18-6 record to go along with 11 saves in his Volunteer career. His senior season has been nothing short of superb. If not for Hunley’s performance, this bullpen would be more vulnerable.
Mr. Consistent for Tennessee
Jake Rucker has been a constant presence for the Tennessee infield. In 2021, the junior solidified full-time third base duties. Rucker has performed up to his 2020 pace at the plate, which garnered enough attention to be considered one of the top third basemen in the country. After this season’s showing, there isn’t much doubt. Rucker is the class of the hot corner spot.
The junior’s average and on-base percentage have been steady since the start of 2020. In that span, Rucker has collected 10 HR and 91 RBI. The righty has an average of .341, to go along with an efficient .420 OBP through those 72 contests.
Rucker earned first-team All-SEC honors on Monday.
Tennessee Newcomer of the Year
One could easily group sophomores into this category, much like the SEC is doing with its awards. But there’s no need to include Covid-freshmen with this one. A true frosh with the first-round potential takes home the hardware for Tennessee’s Newcomer of the Year.
Blade Tidwell began the season battling for a formidable role in the Vols’ deep pitching staff. He ended the year with the lowest ERA (3.74) out of all the weekend starters. The freshman also recorded the second-most innings (77) on the team. Tidwell struck out 72 batters while allowing just seven home runs on the year.
It was this newcomer’s Sunday role that gave Tennessee an edge in most matchups. After seeing their lead arm go down with a season-ending injury early in the season, the Vols’ pitching staff kept dealing and finished with a 3.52 ERA, good for second in the conference. Tennessee’s weekend starters went 18-6 on the year. Tidwell is tied for second on the team with seven victories to his name.
The Vols didn’t make it this far without possessing a healthy amount of grit. Many of UT’s players ooze confidence that’s backed up by stellar play. But none were more brazen than catcher Connor Pavolony.
Known as an athletic receiver with formidable pop in the box, the junior had high praise coming into the year. Pavolony struggled early in 2021, barely hovering above the Mendoza line. Then the catcher got hit in the hand with a fastball during a game against No. 2 Vanderbilt on March 17. Pavolony had just hit his second home run of the year in the fourth inning. He had to exit after the HBP.
Pavolony came back the next weekend and hit two homers against Texas A&M with a limited hand. Since the trip to College Station, Texas, the junior has missed significant time due to the injury. Pavolony was sidelined for two weeks to ensure that the hand was capable of enduring the rest of the season. Since his return against No.1 Arkansas on May 15, Pavolony’s average continues to rise. He is now hitting .248. That’s up .030 since the injury occurred.
Thanks to drinking motor oil and chewing on nails for breakfast, Pavolony earns the Tennessee Toughness award.
Most Likely to Succeed (…In Anything)
This category is dedicated to those who are apt to succeed on or off the diamond.
From milking goats to training for a lumberjack competition, Kirby Connell is built to do it all. And it appears that Tennessee’s Man of the Mountain is also very good at baseball.
The sophomore left-hander sports a 2.95 ERA going into postseason play. Connell played a vital role in helping the bullpen establish a rhythm early in the season. His performance even elicited a Twitter video on Rob Freidman’s Pitching Ninja.
And Kirby Connell, Filthy Breaking Ball and Pitching with 🔥🔥
Love it. pic.twitter.com/03EXwRpcbp
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 11, 2021
The southpaw has never faced a batter that he liked, as evident in his 19 K/BB rates. According to his high school coach, Connell ended an opponent’s no-hitter by blasting a home run. And yes – you probably guessed it – the pitcher tossed a no-no of his own that game, winning the contest 1-0.
Connell is the first one out of the dugout to rally the incoming fielders in between innings. He snags gloves and other equipment between at-bats for base runners. The sophomore is also known for signing autographs (pre-Covid) for kids outside of Lindsey Nelson after games.
Man of the Mountain. Vollie Fingers. The names catchy names abound. Today, Connell is Fanrun’s Most Likely to Succeed. The man is simply a winner.
Now it’s time for the head of the class.
From the land Down Under to the summit of Rocky Top, this Aussie has cemented himself as the catalyst for the 2021 Diamond Vols.
Senior Liam Spence has been a well-traveled man over the years. A native of Geelong, Australia, the shortstop came to Tennessee by way of Central Arizona College. He started all 16 in his first year with the Vols during the shortened season, hitting .346 with an OBP of .462. It was too small of a sample to portend Spence as being an All-SEC player. But that’s exactly how the veteran formed. Spence earned first-team All-SEC honors as well as achieving a spot on the All-Defensive team in 2021.
The shortstop was simply amazing at the top of UT’s lineup. He finished with a league-leading .494 OBP and a .351 average, good for sixth in the conference. Spence finished with one of the most amazing stats you’ll ever see by someone who collected 194 AB. The senior drew 48 walks while falling victim to just 42 strikeouts.