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Take It Easy on Vitello

After No. 1 Tennessee’s stunning loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA baseball Super Regional, people, fans and media, have been piling on Vol coach Tony Vitello.

Some pundits call him an arrogant know-it-all, who is brash at press conferences. Fans have labeled this year as an abject failure. I think both assessments are pretty extreme.

So, let’s examine the so-called “choke job” the Vols pulled last weekend. The Vols and Notre Dame were even in their series and the Vols cringed to a 3-1 lead going into the seventh inning of their elimination game.

Vitello had a decision to make. Starting pitcher Chase Burns was cruising. He’d retired nine in a row and was down to his final strike of the inning. He also had enjoyed his longest outing since the Ole Miss series early in the season.

This is what Vitello will have to wrestle with for the next eight months: should he have turned it over to the spectacular bullpen and close it out or does he come get Burns when he started to get in trouble in the seventh?

Remember, hindsight always is 20-20.

Notre Dame, about the third or fourth time around, had figured out Burns. Baseball is a screwy game and momentum can burn out of control. Such was the case for the Irish, whose hit bats acted as a contagion.

Vitello stuck to his guns and stayed with his gut. Why not? Tennessee had played in 67 games to that point and won 59 of them? I’d say his gut instinct was pretty reliable.

Notre Dame pitching was better than anticipated and Tennessee is staying at home instead of playing in Omaha this week. Yes, it’s disappointing. Choke job? Maybe. Turns out Notre Dame isn’t as bad as we thought either.

Was this season a failure? It went 57-9. Not even double-digit losses! People are paying attention to college baseball in these parts now. Tennessee is getting upgrades on its facilities as a result.

I remind people how No. 1 Vanderbilt, 54-13 at the time, with David Price and Pedro Alvarez, were stunned in the 2007 regional by Michigan. Like Tennessee, Tim Corbin’s Commodores were in the same evolutionary process and have since won two College World Series titles.

Tennessee will be back and better than ever.

But with Texas and Oklahoma coming to the SEC soon, so will everyone else.

Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m CT Monday-Thursday on 95.9 FM, WRJB, Camden, Tenn.

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