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Simmons Says - Sorting out the Vols losing

If you don’t want to read this column, I understand completely. This is the WC Sports Authority, the best source of local sports coverage, so you may not want to hear about Vol baseball. It’s cool – I just need some catharsis by writing about yet another letdown by the Big Orange.

For the last four months, I had an absolute blast following the best baseball team in college baseball. The Vols were an absolute force on the diamond, including a 23-game winning streak that helped the team get off to a preposterous 31-1 start. Through the year (and last postseason), I started learning about these new athletes who are going to be legends going forward in Knoxville: Drew Gilbert, Jordan Beck and Chase Dollander, to name a few.

As a lifelong Vol fan, it was nice to have a Tennessee team that wasn’t just nationally relevant, it was the clear-cut favorite to win a championship. All the national baseball sites started drooling over the talent Tony Vitello had assembled in Knoxville, making them the No. 1 team in the sport for basically the last three months.

Of course, they lured me in too, even financially. FanDuel had Tennessee at +3000 to win the national title back in March, so I tossed $20 on the group and hoped I had a mortgage payment in the bag by June. Should I have known the letdown was coming and take the $200 payout I was offered before the Super Regionals? Probably. Did I do it? Absolutely not.

I didn’t even think about the money Sunday though. I sat in stunned silence from the moment Notre Dame hit back-to-back jacks to take the lead, then I had to eat my way through the sadness of losing. Side note: I ate way too much at Crawdaddy’s in Cookeville and was in agony the rest of the night, but it did lead to my favorite postgame exchange. I posted my dessert on Snap Chat and said I was eating it to cure my depression of the Vols losing and a friend commented, “I guess you eat dessert a lot, huh?” What a savage comment!

While I’ll probably remember how it ended the most (much like I do the 2013 Spurs who were an absolute juggernaut all year and then gave up a championship in the last 27.2 seconds of the NBA Finals), I hope I can hold on to the great moments too. There were plenty: sweeping No. 1 Ole Miss and top-five Vandy in back-to-back weekends on the road while setting an SEC record for best start, winning the SEC East by a record margin of games, winning the SEC tournament without ever trailing and so many unworldly home runs.

Maybe if I keep comparing the hurt to the 2013 Spurs, I’ll get to enjoy next year the same way as I did the 2014 Spurs torching the Heat on the way to the title. I’ve heard similar analysts make the same point about many other college baseball teams (the record-setting Vandy team in 2013 that lost in the Super Regional, then won a CWS in 2014 has been brought up by ESPN guys a few times this week).

It won’t be with the same guys though, which will hurt because they are going to be known for a long time for reestablishing the Vol baseball program. Guys like Luc Lipcius, Evan Russell and Redmond Walsh, along with Beck and Gilbert, are going to be throwing out first pitches for the Vols for decades to come.

Still, if you’re longtime Vol fan, you’ve seen this story before. Everybody thought 1997 was supposed to be the year with Peyton Manning and the boatload of great players that came through in the mid-1990s, but it was actually the 1998 team who brought home the crown. I’m not going to set the bar for championship-or-bust for next year’s team when they’ll likely be replacing 7-8 starters in the field, but at least there’s hope with Vitello on the bench that the Vols will continue to reload.

Before I close, I want to talk through some fact and fiction about the dialogue I’ve seen come out about Tennessee after Notre Dame pulled the upset of the year in college baseball. The Vols have been the talk of baseball – for better or worse – all season, so it came as no surprise that there were plenty of hot takes Sunday and Monday. Here’s what I think about them:

Fact – Lindsey Nelson Stadium played a huge role in the final result for the Vols.

All season, the Vols put up otherworldly offensive numbers. They set a new record for home runs in the BBCor era (since 2011) and ranked top five all time in long balls for a season. Their impressive power, on occasion, was attributed to LNS being a small park. The best comment probably was when Mike Rooney, one of ESPN’s top analysts and a delight on Squeeze Play during the postseason, said earlier in the year that he’s curious to see if the Vols can hit at Ole Miss, which is “not Williamsport, which is where the Tennessee plays at.” If you don’t know, Williamsport is where they play the Little League World Series.

In that deciding seventh inning, Notre Dame took the lead on a home run that barely cleared the short fence in right field at LNS. After the game, Fightin’ Irish coach Link Jarrett remarked that his guy probably hit that ball 306 feet, but it was in the perfect spot. The short porch where Tennessee feasted all year bit them at the worst possible time.

Does that mean their whole season of offensive supremacy is negated? Of course not. They destroyed balls everywhere this year --- Beck hit a ball onto the train tracks at Minute Maid Field in Houston, the Vols hit five homers in their first game at Ole Miss after Rooney’s comment, freshman Blake Burke demolished a ball into the trees at Hoover in the SEC tourney and so on.

And even if analysts want to discredit the Vols and say their hitting was boosted by their home park, then they should have to make the case that the Tennessee pitching staff is the best to ever step on the diamond. I mean, how else would a team amass the best ERA in the NCAA (by nearly a full run per nine innings) while pitching the majority of its games at a little league field?

Wouldn’t opponents benefit the same from hitting at Lindsey Nelson Stadium? It’s not like Knoxville has a Green Monster or weird cut outs like Minute Maid that need major adjusting - you just benefit as a hitter from having to hit it 10-15 feet shorter in the corners.

In the end though, the homer of the season at LNS is going to be one hit by an opponent that wouldn’t have been out anywhere else in the Super Regionals (except, maybe, East Carolina). That stings.

Fiction: The Vols were taken out by the Baseball Gods

My goodness, what a joke of a comment I’ve seen so many times. It’s complete bologna and the pious quotes I’ve seen from some coaches are hysterical. My favorite one came from North Carolina coach Scott Forbes (and granted, he could’ve been directing it at anybody, but most media assumed it was UT).

After losing to Arkansas, Forbes was complimentary of Arkansas’ approach and playing baseball “how it’s supposed to be played.” His comments mirror many from people who feel like the brash and outspoken Vols lost because baseball has unwritten rules and they broke all of them.

Sorry, I’m not here to get lectured on baseball ethics by a coach who just the week before had to watch two elimination games his team played in the region because he was serving a suspension for his second ejection of the season. I would think there would be some unwritten rule about coaches being there for their team when they need them most (Lou Brown gets a pass, he was dealing with a heart attack when the Indians went to the playoffs).

Coaches like that can save the high and mighty speeches for parents of recruits who may buy it -- or those parents may want to send their kid to a school that’s about to produce upwards to a dozen top 50 MLB picks in the next three years.

I joke about the Sports Gods in my columns and in everyday lingo all the time, but they don’t exist. If they did, then tell me why Rick Barnes – basically considered one of the nicest coaches and best in the business when it comes to running a model college basketball program – always sucks in the postseason? If you’re going to punish teams that violate the codes, then wouldn’t you reward the ones who do it right?

Fact: If you talk the talk and don’t walk the walk, expect some heat.

I don’t care that fans from across the nation are lobbing bombs at Tennessee right now. One of the best I saw was “Hundreds of motor homes are turning around on their way to Nebraska right now.” Classic stuff – a call back to the “trailer park” comments of old about Tennessee fans and a nice dig at people who were booking those Omaha reservations before the Vols could even clinch a bid.

Tennessee spent the entire year getting in people’s faces. The Vols went into opponent’s stadiums, told them they were better than them before the first pitch, proceeded to smack them around while running their mouths the whole time and then let them know on their way out after sweeping the series. It’s only fair to hear the heat now after giving it out all season.

Tennessee’s players, coaches and fans are all going to have to take the medicine from people who have been saying all year “Win when it matters most and then we’ll listen.” Those people are loving the sounds of crickets right now coming from Knoxville.

I listened to D1 Baseball’s podcast this week about the Super Regionals and all three analysts basically made the same point – this year was a failure for Vols baseball because they didn’t make it Omaha. That doesn’t mean over 100 teams wouldn’t have died to be in their position the last four months, but when you start talking about championships in March or April (and that was mostly fans, not the team), you have to be in Omaha in June.

Just miss me with the Karma talk – that’s just old school baseball BS that needs to age out. From every single outlet you can find that covered Tennessee baseball, you can find stories about how much these college kids did for the community, youngsters and other things when they were off the field.

It’s very possible to be a class act in life and an animal between the lines – most coaches would kill for that combo.

Fact: Tennessee fans have jumped on the bandwagon

I'll just speak for myself, but of course people who support Tennessee in other sports would get behind this group. Fans, above all, love winners. The Vols aren't going to win a national title, but nobody is going to win more games (57) than them (47-game winners Stanford and Texas, by winning eight games in Ohama, still couldn't top their total).

As a hater of baseball for most of the last two decades, I have to admit I jumped on in the last 18 months. I think Drew Gilbert's game-winning grand slam in the regionals last year served as a flare to all Vol Nation -- It was time to start paying attention to Tennessee baseball.

Does that mean I know nothing about the history of the program? Of course not. I stayed up late in high school to watch Chris Burke and the Vols play in the College World Series, I grew up on stories about RA Dickey and Todd Helton, I actually had a few conversations in college with Julio Borbon (35th pick in 2007 MLB draft) and I was aware of guys like JP Arencibia (six seasons in the majors), Luke Hochevar (on the 2015 Royals roster when they won the World Series) and Garrett Crochet (first player to go from drafted to the pros in a decade in 2020).

During all the time I wasn't watching the Vols, I knew about them, their team and the university was still getting money to support athletics from my family (and, occasionally, me).

This isn't some new phenomena in sports, nor are Vols fans the only guilty party. When I was growing up, I think I knew two fans of Alabama football - Jasmine Ware and Tyler Hillis. By the time I got done with college and moved back to McMinnville in 2010, WCHS was hiring an Alabama alumni as football coach and you would've thought "Rammer Jammer" should be our new official fight song.

What changed from 2000 to 2010? Alabama got good at football. Really Good. Ridiculously Good. Does that make the fans that support them while they're winning any worse? Not really - I still don't like them because they're Alabama fans, not because they're fair-weather Bama fans.

I assume the vitriol I see from people on Twitter (mostly Arkansas fans) is for the same reason. They've always hated Tennessee fans - they just really hate that they have to hear from them and about the Vols a lot more now.

Fiction: the Vols will be a one-year wonder

First, they’ve already sustained a high level of success for multiple years, so this year shouldn’t be considered a “one-hit wonder.” The Vols were in Omaha in 2021 and started the 2020 season 15-2 and beat the No. 1 team in the country shortly before COVID cancelled the season. Over the last three years, the Vols are 122-29. If you want to take it back four years, they are 162-50 and have made three regionals (hosting twice), two Super Regionals (again, hosting twice) and one College World Series.

They also played for the SEC championship in 2021 and won it in 2022. They’ve been one of the best 10 teams in college baseball for at least the last three seasons (the 2020, arguably, was loaded with the most talent of any of the three groups).

Simply put, as long as Tony Vitello is coaching the Vols, they’re going to be a contender for the national title. Last year, they had to replace their top two starters, three infielders who were drafted and their catcher (who was also drafted). During that same span, they moved their starting LF to catcher, to that was another hole to fill.

All they did was get even better. Now they’ll have to replace even more draftees (some MLB draft experts have noted it won't be a surprise if the entire Tennessee starting lineup that is eligible to be picked will hear their name called in July), but the reloading process has already begun.

Tennessee brings back all three of its weekend starters – the SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander, SEC Freshman of the Year Drew Beam and Freshman All-American Chase Burns. They’ll also get to find full-time homes from freshman phenoms Christian Moore and Blake Burke, as well as get back a fully healthy Jared Dickey (who was leading the SEC in hitting before suffering a foot injury).

The Vols have already secured the commitment of Kansas All-American shortstop Maui Ahuni (projected first-round pick in the 2023 draft) and are among the favorites to land Air Force P/C Paul Skenes (the John Olerud two-play player of the year and projected top-5 pick in 2023) and NC State’s slugger Tommy White (27 homers, ACC Freshman of the year). Basically every top transfer on the market has made contact with Tennessee, which also has a loaded recruiting class ready to enroll this fall.

There we go - It took over 2,000 words, but I finally have released all the frustrations over this weekend’s soul-crushing loss. I’m ready to get back on the roller coaster next February.

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