Coming off a three-game sweep over Alabama last weekend, the Tennessee baseball team will go on the road to Western Carolina University for its first mid-week game away from home.
The Vols will follow Tuesday’s game by traveling to South Carolina for three games in Columbia later this week but must first take care of business against the Catamounts.
“We need to be efficient with our energy because it is a long road trip, and it is very emotional when you are playing SEC games,” Vitello said. “Guys will be hyped about Thursday. It needs to be the old coaches’ cliché of 'One inning at a time,' starting with Western Carolina.”
The sweep against Alabama was the first sweep over a conference opponent since 2015. During the series, freshman Evan Russell emerged as a key contributor for Tennessee.
Russell played as the designated hitter against the Crimson Tide and was walked with the bases loaded in two key situations during the series.
“It sets the tone, especially for the entire season,” Russell said.“There’s obviously other good teams doing exactly what we are. We are not going to play our best every night; that’s just the beauty of baseball. To be able to execute and get these wins whenever they are needed, it’s big to push it over into the conference tournament.”
The Vols (16-9) and Catamounts (3-19) met on March 14 at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, where Tennessee came away with a 5-0 win behind a strong outing from freshman pitcher Sean Hunley. It was Hunley’s first career complete-game shutout.
Hunley will be back on the mound for Tuesday’s game. He brings a 3-0 record and a 1.59 ERA into this start.
“I’d say we got to continue to do what we have done on the mound, but Sean Hunley is the fourth starter,” Vitello said. “He is a legitimate fourth starter, and I don’t know if he is going to give up zero runs or 10, but he is going to go out there and compete and throw strikes.”
The Tennessee bullpen is rested coming into this week. Vol starters Garrett Stallings and Will Neely pitched complete games during Sunday’s doubleheader.
Vitello has been able to evaluate his bullpen other times this season, so the complete games were a boost for the team heading into a four-game week on the road.
“You want those guys to get work, and you want to start to evaluate what guys can and can’t do,” Vitello said. “We got a little bit of that, but mainly we got the rest. That’s what we needed in particular going on the road for five days.”
First pitch between the Vols and the Catamounts will be at 5 p.m. on Tuesday from Hennon Stadium. Vitello is eager for the third road trip of the season.
“We hate to leave our fans because this is the best crowd we have had all year,” Vitello said. “But this group in particular, you can sense it as a coaching staff: It is good for them to be on the road. We grow up a little bit, and they grow a little closer together.”