Tennessee baseball heads into regionals as must-see TV
By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
College baseball’s rambunctious orange circus rolls on.
The University of Tennessee Volunteers are the best baseball team in the land, and it isn’t particularly close. They fly into this weekend’s Division I regional playoffs with an eye-popping 53-7 record, the most homers in the country, the lowest ERA in the country, the SEC regular-season title, the SEC tournament title and the No. 1 ranking in the game.
But the Vols are so much more than just a good sports team. They are a rowdy and chaotic celebration of modern baseball. Unapologetically obnoxious, magnificently brash and spectacularly talented, the Volunteers are better than every other club on the planet, and they carry themselves that way.
There is hootin’, there is hollerin’, there is bat-flippin’, there is a comical amount of eye black. Whenever someone hits a tater, they are given a body-length fur coat and a pink hat that says "daddy" to wear in the dugout.
Baseball traditionalists, cry your little eyes out, because this is far from a "buttoned-up" group.
If this team were a boring bunch of geezers with no joy in their hearts and no hearts on their sleeves, they’d still be worth your time because they freakin’ ball. They went 25-5 in the SEC, college baseball’s deepest and most formidable conference, which included road sweeps over in-state rival Vanderbilt, No. 1 team-at-the-time Ole Miss and perennial contender Florida.
The offense has walloped a Division I-leading 141 home runs in 60 games. The Marlins, D-backs and Pirates all had fewer than that in 162 MLB games last season. The Vols have scored at least 10 runs in 26 of their 60 games and average a hilarious 9.35 runs per game.
Now, some of those offensive numbers are somewhat inflated by Tennessee's incredibly hitter-friendly home field, Lindsey Nelson Stadium, a field that was cited by a player on Ole Miss as the reason for the Vols’ power surge. Then the Vols beat the pants off Ole Miss in Mississippi.
Lindsey Nelson Stadium did not hit 141 homers on its own.
And the friendly nature of the team’s confines makes what the pitching staff did this season all the more remarkable. As a team, the Vols posted a 2.35 ERA, almost a full run better than the second-best team ERA, and they did so against an SEC gauntlet featuring some of the best offenses in the country. Even more impressive, Tennessee’s two best starters (Drew Beam and Chase Burns) are freshmen, and the No. 3, Chase Dollander, is a sophomore transfer.
College baseball in general is an exercise in balancing discipline and joy. In a world where the team that screws up the least usually wins, attention to detail goes a long way. At the same time, the players are not getting paid to be there, and the big leagues are light-years away. For most of them, the action is the juice, and the experience of being a college baseball player is supposed to be a good time.
Nobody in the sport right now walks that tightrope between order and chaos like Vols skipper Tony Vitello. The antics are not happening behind his back; they’re happening on his orders. He is the ringleader of the circus, a willing participant in the mayhem and, at times, its main instigator.
Vitello moves with the untouchable audacity of a big-name college football coach. He is Dabo Swinney meets Jose Mourinho meets Earl Weaver. Earlier this year, when an Auburn player flipped his bat toward the Tennessee dugout after launching a homer, Vitello walked onto the field, picked up the lumber and chucked it across the diamond to Auburn’s side, chirping his opponents the entire way.
He is a polarizing character, despised by many as unprofessional, beloved by others for his rawness and realness. If you’re in his dugout, Vitello is a guy you’d run through five brick walls for. At Tennessee, he has cultivated a culture of on-field excellence by encouraging players to express themselves, to toe the line and, sometimes, to cross it.
Clearly, that has worked wonders.
The main characters
Here are the Volunteers you need to know.
Drew Gilbert, JR, OF
The straw that stirs the drink. You might remember Gilbert from his viral, walk-off grand slam and celebration last June in the regionals against Wright State. He’s everything he embodied in that video: clutch, brash, loud and a magnificent hitter. Oh, and he might be a first-round pick in a few months.
Jordan Beck, JR, OF
A big dude with big power who swings hard and swings a lot. He’s probably a first-round pick, too, and it’s almost a guarantee that he goes yard this weekend.
Trey Lipscomb, SR, 3B
While Lipscomb isn’t a surefire pro prospect like Gilbert and Beck, the lanky third baseman has the best offensive numbers on the team. Lipscomb wasn’t a regular starter until this season, but he has been one of college baseball’s biggest revelations, with 21 long balls.
Luc Lipcius, Grad, 1B
Technically, Luc Lipcius and I overlapped as college baseball players; his freshman year in 2017 was my senior year. This man has been around for a long, long time. The combination of a redshirt in his first season and an extra year of eligibility from COVID means that Lipcius is somehow in his sixth season of ball at Tennessee. And the elder statesman can mash.
Evan Russell, Grad, C
Like Lipcius, Russell has been around Knoxville seemingly forever. Russell is more than just a veteran backstop, though. He’s currently tied with Volunteer legend Todd Helton for the most homers in program history, with 38. If he rips a big fly at the regional, expect mayhem at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Chase Burns - FR - SP | Drew Beam - FR - SP | Chase Dollander - SO - SP
This is the best rotation in college baseball, and it’s not close. All three guys have ERAs under 3.00 in around 70 innings pitched. Burns and Dollander average way more than a strikeout per inning. Beam and Dollander have WHIPs way under 1.00. All three should be high draft picks eventually. This three-headed monster is an absolute force.
Blade Tidwell, SO, SP
Heading into the season, Tidwell was a projected first-round pick, the crown jewel of Tennessee’s rotation. Then the broad-shouldered sophomore had some arm troubles and missed a chunk of time, which allowed Burns, Beam and Dollander to step forward. Now Tidwell is back on the bump and as dominant as ever. He’s a literal ace in the hole for a team that hasn’t even needed his fireballing services all season.
Ben Joyce, SR, RP
If you have an internet connection and follow more than one baseball Twitter account, you know about this dude. He throws 104 miles per hour. Literally. That is not hyperbole. He is the hardest-throwing pitcher, not just in college baseball history but in non-Aroldis baseball history.
The 2022 Tennessee Volunteers baseball team is an incredible song turned up way too loud, and I mean that as a compliment. Baseball is entertainment, and there is no baseball club at any level on the planet right now that is more compelling and more captivating than this bunch. They are a movie, a video game happening in real life.
One of two things will soon happen to the Volunteers. Either they will storm their way to the title, becoming the first No. 1 overall seed to win the whole thing since Miami in 2001 and cementing themselves as the greatest college baseball team of the 21st century.
Or they will flame out, and the team that beats them will stomp on their sports grave so hard it will reverberate into the core of the earth.
Both outcomes are theater. Make sure you tune in.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.