Before taking the head coaching job at Tennessee, Tony Vitello had spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach for the Razorbacks. Now, Vitello is set to head back to Arkansas for a series standing in the opposite dugout.
“It’s a place I really enjoyed I wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for that place, basically I’m here because of coach Van Horn and also the players that were at Arkansas and some of them are still there,” Vitello said. “It’s a strange balance of being thankful and appreciative and also wanting to be competitive.”
He will be looking to lead his team to their third straight SEC series win, after the Volunteers took two of three from No. 2 Georgia and a three-game sweep of the Kentucky Wildcats. Overall, Tennessee has won eight of its last ten games going into the series with the Razorbacks.
“It’s just another SEC series, we get to play in front of a bunch of fans, it’s going to be a lot of fun, another great opponent and it’s a great challenge for us,” Pete Derkay said. “If you try to make it more, then we start playing out of our comfort zone and everything like that, we are a good team and we are just going to do our thing.”
Arkansas (31-11, 12-6 SEC) will also come into this weekend on a high note, as they swept Mississippi State last weekend. The Razorbacks will come into the series against Tennessee with one of the best offenses in the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas is second in the league with a .303 batting average and is second in runs scored with 328 runs on the season.
“They are pretty good, I mean number two in the country last year, made it all the way to Omaha, you are just going to come out and compete,” Redmond Walsh said. “I think, in the SEC, every weekend is the same. You have got to come out have your best, every lineup is deadly, and every lineup is going to be able to score runs.”
Individually, the Razorbacks explosive offense is led by Matt Goodheart, who is second in the SEC, posting a .385 batting average in his 37 games played this season. He also leads the conference in on-base percentage with .500. Another Razorback, Heston Kjerstad is tied for fifth in the SEC in home runs, with 10. Two of the other players in the conference with 10 long balls include Tennessee’s Andre Lipcius and Al Soularie.
They key to the series this weekend will be what many of Tennessee’s have been about, whether or not Tennessee’s dominant pitching staff will be able to limit the number of runs scored against a powerful SEC offense, in order to turn these games into a low-scoring affair.
“Knowing the team that we are, and knowing how good we can be, being able to sweep on the road at Kentucky was a big confidence boost for us,” Walsh said. “Winning five of the last six SEC games against two really good teams is huge for us.”
Some of Tennessee’s biggest wins of the season have come in low scoring games, including both wins against No. 2 Georgia, with final scores of 2-0 and 3-0. Tennessee’s pitching staff also held Kentucky to just four runs in its sweep of the Wildcats last weekend.
Coming into the key series against Arkansas, Tennessee leads the SEC in team ERA with a mark of 2.68. The starters in the weekend rotation have been a key for the Vols the past two weekends. Garrett Stallings is third in the SEC with a 1.82 ERA, and has been extremely effective in his last two starts. On April 12th against Georgia, Stallings threw nearly a perfect game, pitching all nine innings, allowing only five hits and keeping the Bulldogs off the board.
Stallings followed that performance up with another impressive showing last week against Kentucky. In the second game of the series, Stallings threw seven innings, only giving up one run on six hits and did not walk a batter. Stallings, along with the combination of starters Garrett Crochet and Zach Linginfelter, have given Tennessee solid starts to games the past couple of weeks.
“There is a combination and a flow to those three being in that order that puts our team in a good position to win,” Vitello said. “I think for right now it makes sense for our team, and also our team can take confidence in there is two or three other guys sitting there that could start in an SEC game and has started in an SEC game.”
The bullpen for Tennessee has been equally impressive for the Vols recently. In the past five games, Tennessee’s bullpen has not given up a run. The combination of a good pitching staff and a few timely hits has been the recipe for success all year for the Vols, and they will hope to carry that into this weekend against Arkansas and secure a successful return for Vitello to his old home.
“Each weekend has its own flavor, so you make some comments and things like that,” Vitello said. “Coach Elander and I know some people, but we’re not going there to hug on people and things like that, we are going there to try to help put you guys in a good position win baseball games.”
First pitch for the first game of the series on Friday night is set for 7:30 p.m.