Will Tennessee's long-ball ways be enough in Omaha? Here's what history tells us
Omaha is no longer the place where home runs go to die, which should be music to the ears of every Tennessee fan.
The restrictions put on aluminum bats in 2011 once would’ve made the deep-ball hitting Vols the ultimate “yeah, but” in Omaha. As in, “yeah, they hit 98 bombs and ranked 4th in America in that department, but they’ll have to totally reinvent themselves in order to win at TD Ameritrade Park.”
That was the place where just 3 home runs were hit in 16 College World Series games in 2014 (and 3 in 14 games the year before that). Up until 2015 when the seams on the baseball were lowered in order to allow the ball to travel further through the air, the idea of repeating a performance like Tennessee’s Super Regional-clinching win that featured 6 home runs vs. LSU would’ve been out of the question in Omaha. Well, at least during the first 4 College World Series held at TD Ameritrade Park (2011-14). We’ve since seen years like 2017 when 23 home runs were hit in Omaha.
The question is whether a team like the Vols, who hit 16 home runs in just 5 NCAA Tournament games, can use that formula to win a national title.
Let’s go back to 2015 when the seams were lowered and the phrase “warning track power” finally wasn’t a punchline every half-inning of a College World Series game at TD Ameritrade. While the numbers overall certainly changed, recent history doesn’t exactly suggest that the home run became a prerequisite for winning it all.
(Keep in mind that the Vols averaged 1.48 home runs per game in 2021 to punch their first College World Series ticket since 2005.)
Go figure that 2019 Vandy, which became known for freshman pitching sensation Kumar Rocker, had the most success leaving the yard among the past 5 champions.
Also go figure that the team that had the least home run success of the past 5 champions was Coastal Carolina, which came into the College World Series ranked No. 3 in America with 1.45 home runs per game. The Chanticleers managed just 2 bombs in 8 games in Omaha, and yet they won it all averaging 3.75 runs per contest. Why? The arms took over, and they only allowed 3.5 runs per game.
Could Tennessee follow in those footsteps? It’s possible.
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As much as the Vols have become known for their bravado — Drew Gilbert’s celebration after his walk-off grand slam vs. Wright State in the NCAA Tournament ignited quite the conversation and established Tennessee as the villain — they showed the ability to ride their starting pitching against quality foes.
Chad Dallas has been especially good in the postseason. In 3 postseason starts, Dallas has a 3.18 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP and 10.1 strikeouts per 9 innings. That includes a 12-strikeout gem in a 4-2 win against LSU in Game 1 of the Super Regional. Blade Tidwell got the win in the Super Regional-clinching Game 2, and even though the final line wasn’t great (6 earned runs in 7 innings), it marked the 4th time in the last 6 starts that the freshman right-hander delivered 7 innings of work.
Ideally, Tennessee’s starters would be able to go deep into games, regardless of if the ball is leaving the park on the offensive end. Tennessee coach Tony Vitello would prefer to preserve the bullpen, but turning it over to the relievers hasn’t been a bad thing at all.
After Dallas’ career night, Sean Hunley picked up the 3-inning save. He did the same thing 6 days earlier to close the Regional, though that save was 3 2/3 innings. Including those performances, Tennessee’s bullpen has some pretty gaudy postseason numbers. In 16 2/3 postseason innings, the Vols’ pen has a 2.16 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP and 11.3 strikeouts per 9 innings. Ever since Hunley’s blown lead was saved by Gilbert’s grand slam in Game 1 of the Regional, the Vols’ bullpen hasn’t allowed a run.
Assuming that streak of 13 scoreless innings will continue in Omaha might be a bit lofty, but it is at least a comforting thought if the Vols look like they’re playing in the 2013 version of the College World Series.
The last thing Tennessee fans want to see in 2021 is a repeat of the 2005 trip to Omaha. There, the Vols’ bats were held in check for a combined 6 runs and 22 men left on base in a brief 0-2 run. They were the first team eliminated in the field of 8.
That was a wildly different story than 2001 when Tennessee’s 4 College World Series games yielded an average of 23.8 runs, 12 of which came from the Vols. Both losses came to eventual national champ Miami, which put up a combined 33 runs in those 2 meetings.
Of course, that was back in the Rosenblatt Stadium days when the home run was essential for survival. Had that been the site for the 2021 CWS, perhaps instead of Vandy hurlers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, the main conversation would be focused on the high-powered Tennessee offense. After all, nobody in Omaha hit more home runs than Tennessee in 2021.
Sunday’s blitzkrieg was a good reminder of that. It was the second time this postseason that the Vols broke their record for home runs in an NCAA Tournament game. It’s unlikely that happens a third time in Omaha, even with the uptick in home runs at TD Ameritrade since 2015.
There might not be another moment quite like Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam, either. That goes for Tennessee and the rest of the CWS field.
There’s no denying that it’ll take more than just the long ball if Vitello’s squad hopes to earn its first title game berth in 70 years and perhaps even bring home its first CWS title ever. Surely that message will be preached all week heading into Omaha.
But maybe the villain Vols can go against the grain 1 more time and make a little history in the process.
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