Why Vols’ title hopes could falter: Evansville pokes holes in pitching, pipes up pressure

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — We’ll get to those who should know and think (and write) better, who somehow forgot what the game of baseball can do to expectations and alleged wisdom.

And we’ll get to pressure and Tennessee baseball, two things that are about to become well acquainted again Sunday night — win and head to Omaha or lose and head to “can’t handle the heat” discourse — at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

First, let’s talk about the tangibles that should concern all who love the Vols and hope this is the team to deliver the first national championship in program history, the state’s first major championship since 2019 and the university’s first natty since women’s indoor track and field in 2009. Evansville 10, Tennessee 8 on Saturday to set up a decisive game in the Knoxville Super Regional was a “Why the Vols won’t win it” tutorial.

This team is not pitching like one that can successfully navigate the College World Series, even against a field that lacks the top-shelf aces of other years. That has to change for a run at the whole thing. It probably has to change Sunday against an Evansville group that is, in the words of hitting hero Kip Fougerousse, a bunch of “super old” guys who have “played a lot of baseball.”

Those graybeards, five of them grad students, just pulled off the first win ever for a No. 4 seed against this tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in 31 tries, according to ESPN. It was “hands down the greatest win in our school’s history,” Evansville coach Wes Carroll said, and one more would invite all the comparisons.

I likened it to Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight, the U.S. Olympic hockey team over Russia in 1980 and Leicester winning the Premier League in essentially laughing off the idea that Evansville could win this series, but go ahead and pick your favorite. Appalachian State over Michigan? Villanova over Georgetown? Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson? Sure. Get them ready.

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The Vols (54-12) might simply bash the baseball all over the yard and outscore the Purple Aces (39-25), who will have to do so much cobbling to put together a pitching staff Sunday that Carroll should henceforth be called Geppetto if he pulls it off. Even on this stunning Saturday in front of a record crowd of 6,506, with UT jumping to a 4-0 lead and watching Evansville score 10 of the next 11 runs, it took Shane Harris getting Christian Moore to pop out with the bases loaded in the ninth to survive.

The Vols disappeared offensively in the middle innings when the Purple Aces flipped the game, but they’re never gone for long. And that three-run ninth might matter because Carroll was going to save Harris for a significant role Sunday. He’ll still have some role, but he has thrown 68 pitches in the first two games.

Tennessee can hit its way out of this. It can hit its way to a national championship if the good-not-great pitching can do enough. And now we get to the pressure. There’s more of it on junior ace Drew Beam than anyone on this team, and that’s no fault of his; it’s just how the roster is constructed — especially with expected co-ace AJ Russell injured and likely done for the season.

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Tennessee ace Drew Beam “couldn’t find that put-away pitch,” catcher Cal Stark said. (Brianna Paciorka / Knoxville News Sentinel)

Beam was cruising Saturday through 4 2/3 innings, but then the Purple Aces got to him, and he ended up yielding five runs on five hits.

“Just couldn’t find that put-away pitch, and that’s how it goes sometimes,” UT catcher Cal Stark said of Beam, who was not made available to reporters.

“It was very sharp early on,” UT coach Tony Vitello said of Beam. “I think the biggest thing, a couple times, trying to be careful with guys and it gets sideways.”

Kirby Connell came in for Beam, gave up a double to Chase Hug and eventually took the loss. Nate Snead came in for Connell and gave up a tying single to Brent Widder and a go-ahead single to Cal McGinnis. Brendan Hord later tagged Snead for a two-run homer. Fougerousse hit a two-run shot off Andrew Behnke, his 22nd of the season to set an Evansville record.

Beam and Snead are two of the most talented pitchers on this staff and are likely to be drafted as such (Snead a year from now). Those are the guys, along with Aaron Combs and AJ Causey, with the stuff for high-leverage moments. It was not a stirring sight for the Vols to see two of those four stumble in the biggest game yet.

But that’s baseball. And that’s Evansville baseball right now. Carroll said his team was tight Friday in an 11-6 loss. Looseness led to relentlessness Saturday. Asked about the absence of pressure in his dugout and the surplus of it in the Tennessee dugout for the deciding game, he gave an honest and somewhat surprising answer.

“You don’t know if you’re ever gonna get here again,” he said. “It’s gonna be one of those things that, I might be one game away for the rest of my life. I’m gonna cherish it. I’m gonna embrace it.”

Then he was off to play Geppetto with a pitching staff. Vitello might be called Pinocchio after he was asked about a potential loss Sunday making this an unsuccessful season and responding: “No, I mean, there’s no way it’s not a successful season.”

That statement will make for quality fodder until the Vols hit the field Sunday evening — Vanderbilt fans, emboldened by their rival’s misfortune Saturday, were having a great time with it — but it’s just Vitello trying to shield his team from the weight of the moment. It would obviously be a disaster for this program to miss Omaha for the second time in three years as the No. 1 overall seed.

Also, win one home game against a lesser opponent, with that fearsome hitting lineup and basically every healthy pitcher but Beam available, and it’s Omaha for the third time in four years. It’s a program adding to its greatest era. It’s a clean slate. It’s back on track for a shot at a national championship.

“You could, if you’re bored and you’re on your phone too long or you get involved in social media chats — which will be up for you all, not our players — you could paint all kinds of different pictures tomorrow,” Vitello said. “But really what it is, is we’re fortunate to host Evansville, one of the best teams in the country. And we’re trying to win the series tomorrow.”

I like the Vols’ chances, and I could see all of this helping them. But I have no clue what will happen, which has obviously been the case all along.

(Top photo of Tony Vitello making a pitching change Saturday: Bryan Lynn / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

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