Love him or hate him, you want Tennessee viral sensation Drew Gilbert and his fiery ways on your team
You either love him or you hate him.
That’s how Stillwater High School (Minn.) coach Mike Parker described Drew Gilbert.
Parker loves Gilbert. Long before Gilbert became a viral sensation for launching a walk-off grand slam — with a bat flip and celebration just as memorable — to lift Tennessee in its first NCAA Regional game, Parker watched him blossom into one of the great players in Minnesota high school baseball history. And outside of those white lines, Parker described the Tennessee outfielder/pitcher as “a heck of a nice kid and so respectful.”
But put the 5-9, 180-pound lefty in between the lines and what do you get? A fiery spark plug who feeds off the hate he stirs up in his opponents with whatever bat flip or trash talk he deems necessary.
“His emotions, his personality, there’s just something that draws people to him,” Parker told SDS. “He’s one of those guys that if you’re his teammate or his coach, you just want a guy like that on your team. If you’re a competitive guy, and you want to win, he’s gonna help ya.”
Welcome to postseason baseball!
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 5, 2021
As a sophomore, Gilbert’s flair for the dramatics already helped Tennessee to its first College World Series appearance in 16 years. His power didn’t fade after his viral bomb made the rounds, either. In 5 NCAA Tournament games, Gilbert hit a team-best 4 home runs and drove in 8 for a Vols squad riding a 5-game winning streak into Omaha.
In many ways, Gilbert’s demeanor is an extension of Tennessee coach Tony Vitello. He’s not afraid to jaw with an umpire or an opposing coach, and instead of repressing personalities like Gilbert’s, the Vols skipper embraces them.
“(Vitello) and he are the perfect match,” Parker said. “And Tennessee is the perfect match for him. They can thrive on his energy and that seems to be what that team is all about.”
When Gilbert made the last-minute move to request a release from his National Letter of Intent at Oregon State after legendary coach Pat Casey retired, Tennessee baseball was in a much different place in the early stages with Vitello. It was weeks removed from earning its first NCAA Tournament bid in 14 years.
“I was happy he was able to go a program that was on the brink of becoming a winning program,” Parker said, “because I really think he would struggle somewhere if it didn’t have that winning culture. He really only knows one way. Every team he’s ever been on has been really good.”
That includes the Stillwater team that Gilbert played on (and started every game) for 3 seasons. They won 88% of the games Gilbert played in during those 3 years, including a 35-game winning streak, which was the second-longest in Minnesota state history. Even though there were half a dozen other Division I players on that Stillwater squad, Parker credited Gilbert for being the leader and the motivator. Or as Parker said, “the program-changer.”
Hitting, pitching, running, throwing, whatever. You name it, Gilbert did it.
As a junior, he delivered a 15-strikeout, 7-inning shutout at Target Field to lift Stillwater to its first state championship in 17 years. As a 5-9 southpaw, Gilbert can still reach the mid-90s and can consistently hit the low-90s. Even though his physical stature never warranted a Randy Johnson comparison, his stuff (he also throws a breaking ball in the mid-80s) and his ability to be “just wild enough” made Gilbert a unique challenge for hitters.
“His approach on the mound,” Parker said, “you are definitely intimidated when you step in the box.”
If Gilbert’s junior year on the mound left a lasting impression, his senior year only one-upped it. He might’ve one-upped every Minnesota high school pitcher before him with the numbers he put up. In 49 innings of work, he finished with a Minnesota state record 97 strikeouts and he allowed just 12 hits and 1 earned run. Gilbert had more no-hitters (3) than earned runs allowed.
“That’s why pitching, in some ways, really fits his personality because he’s constantly part of the game. He doesn’t have to wait til it’s his time up to bat or hope that the ball is hit to him in the outfield,” Parker said of Gilbert, who earned Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year, as well as second-team All-America honors. “He has some of the problems that pitchers have of being able to calm themselves because he wasn’t really able to do that. But it pushed him to throw harder and harder.”
Gilbert admitted even after his high school career that controlling his emotions was a work in progress. Parker knew that if he tried to give Gilbert some rest and pull him in the 5th inning with a 7-0 lead that he wasn’t coming out. When he played in the outfield, he was constantly moving and practicing his pitching motion.
Harnessing that cannon from the outfield took a bit of time, too. The finesse wasn’t quite there as a sophomore, though Parker did say from the jump that it was “probably the best arm we’ve ever had as an outfielder.”
“He really didn’t have much control of all his power back then,” Parker said. “Most of the time when we were doing infield-outfield, he’d throw it about 15 feet over the catcher’s head into the backstop all the way from right field.”
There was, however, one instance 3 games into Gilbert’s sophomore season when Parker braced for what he expected to be a close play at the plate with an opposing runner … only to see that he was out by half a baseline thanks to a dart from Gilbert.
The talent combined with his edge — Parker used to say he would’ve been a fantastic hockey player and that he was an excellent football player — certainly made Gilbert a polarizing player. Sometimes, Parker said he thinks Gilbert takes a page out of Michael Jordan’s playbook and he’ll make up reasons not to like an opponent. And other times, Gilbert will give teams a reason to dislike him.
There was the time his senior year when Stillwater faced rival Roseville at CHS Field, which is home to the St. Paul Saints (Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins). Gilbert hit a ball that went out of the ballpark, which Parker had never seen anyone do. Parker had also never seen a bat flip in a high school game, which Gilbert delivered before trotting around the bases for his no-doubter home run.“I was like, ‘What the heck?’” Parker said.
That led to some chirping from the opposing dugout. But that only fueled Gilbert, who as Parker said, “had his 4 best games of the year against Roseville.”
Holding back emotions isn’t something Gilbert does, win or lose. When Stillwater lost in the state semifinals Gilbert’s senior year, Parker watched his star player bawl his eyes out. Never mind the fact that Gilbert was on the verge of having his choice of playing big-time college baseball or starting his professional career. It mattered.
Perhaps that’s also why Gilbert didn’t think twice about the idea of playing low-level Minor League Baseball when the hometown Twins — the team his mom spent 20 years working for — selected him in the 35th round in the 2019 MLB Draft. Parker said Gilbert could’ve been a 5th round pick, but after he didn’t go in the early rounds, teams assumed that unless he was a top pick, he wanted to experience playing college baseball instead of grinding away in the minors.
“He would be trying to get out of that and into the next level as fast as he could,” Parker said.
Gilbert has since called his late switch from Oregon State to Tennessee — that came in June before his freshman year in 2019 — “the best decision of my life.”
Tennessee fans certainly appreciate Gilbert’s switch. Even though his pitching was limited to 8 1/3 scoreless relief innings in 2021, being able to spend more time on his hitting yielded a breakout sophomore season. In addition to being 5th on the team with 10 home runs, he’s 2nd with 62 RBIs, and fittingly, he’s been hit by a pitch a team-high 14 times.
(There’s not an official stat on his number of bat flips, but just know it’s “several.”)
I promise that Drew Gilbert does not care about your feelings. pic.twitter.com/hu1kkSPO1a
— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) June 14, 2021
But whether he’s taking one for the team, stealing the occasional base or hitting once-in-a-lifetime moonshots, Gilbert established himself as an integral part of this Tennessee run. Time will tell how much he improves on that 35th-round draft pick from a couple of years ago. Parker said he thinks he can be every bit as good as Gilbert’s old high school rival Max Meyer, who was selected No. 3 overall by the Miami Marlins in the 2020 MLB Draft.
In the meantime, Gilbert will try to be the straw that stirs the Vols’ drink in Omaha. Perhaps another unforgettable walk-off is in his future.
Immediately after Gilbert’s heroics against Wright State, Parker got roughly 45 texts within a minute and a half. Parker figured Gilbert had it even worse, so he waited about an hour to send the obligatory congratulations text. Within 10 minutes, Gilbert responded to Parker.
“Thanks a lot, Coach. I love you and I miss you.”
Parker and Gilbert have a mutual love and appreciation for each other. It’s safe to say the Tennessee faithful can relate.
As for everyone else? Bring on the hate.