Unbeaten Tennessee Headlines Cox Diamond Invitational

Six-game tournament marks official return of baseball at Blue Wahoos Stadium

Coach Tony Vitello has led the Tennessee Vols to a 9-0 start in his second season as their head coach. (UTSports.com)

By Bill Vilona, Senior Writer / Pensacola Blue Wahoos | February 28, 2019 11:15 AM

Cox Diamond Invitational Tickets and Schedule

Hours before the Tennessee Vols presented Tony Vitello his first head coaching job in 2017, he was reminded of astonishing perspective.

"Can you believe you're going to be one of 14 SEC baseball (head) coaches?" said a search committee member wowed by Vitello's final interview.

"It's almost awe-striking and it's definitely humbling," said Vitello, reflecting earlier this week.

Vitello has quickly shown the merits of that decision.

The Vols (9-0) are enjoying their best start in five years, unbeaten heading into Friday's Cox Diamond Invitational opener on Friday afternoon at Blue Wahoos Stadium.

Tennessee opens the three-day event, arranged by Pensacola Sports, in a 2 p.m. game against Louisiana-Monroe.

It's also the first baseball game of 2019 at Pensacola's bayfront ballpark and the first opportunity for fans to experience the stadium's renovated concessions storefronts (two will be open) and check out brand new merchandise in the Bait & Tackle team store.

Baseball is back in "Hoosville" and Vitello is thankful to help usher the experience.

"When we got the job, we were scrambling in all things… scheduling, recruiting, facilities," said Vitello, 40, a St. Louis native and University of Missouri graduate. "The one thing we did want is the opportunity to play in a neutral site tournament.

"There's so much fun in doing it at the beginning of the year. There is a different flavor, because you are playing a new opponent each day and you're able to see a new area, a new ballpark, and, in this case, it's a phenomenal park."

The second game Friday at 6 p.m. will feature the University of North Florida facing Western Kentucky.

The tournament, sponsored by Cox Communications, is a six-game, three-day, round-robin format, giving each team valuable exhibition experience before their conference schedules begin in mid-March.

Tennessee will arrive in Pensacola on Friday as the tournament's marquee team, giving fans the chance to watch their unbeaten pitching staff in action.

The Vols staff has tossed five shutouts and allowed just five run total this season, sweeping Appalachian State and Indiana and beating Liberty and Middle Tennessee.

"Probably the most experience we have is on the mound," said Vitello. "We don't have any senior hitters in the lineup. We're still fairly young on offense.

"But on the mound we can rely on some guys who have a ton of experience in the SEC and college in general."

One of those is junior Garrett Stallings, rated No. 29 among SEC pro prospects by Baseball America.

Junior righthander Zach Linginfelter passed on being drafted in the 19th round last year by the Washington Nationals to return to college.

"I'm really confident that when we come to the park that we can fill nine innings," Vitello said. "Or if we get that doubleheader situation from rainouts, that we can fill those innings as well as possible. I think depth is the biggest strength for us on the mound."

Another boost has been Tennessee's remodeled home field. In December, a $1.25 million artificial turf field was installed at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville. The project was completed before the season opened Feb. 15.

The only dirt on the field is the pitcher's mound. However, the infield area has been simulated with a different composition of the turf and in a brown color to make it look more like natural baseball field.

"Coach (Phil) Fulmer (athletic director) and our administration went full bore with the cost of this thing," Vitello said. "It was about as expensive of a field as you can get, but with that, we got what we paid for. The drainage is incredible.

"On top of that, the field plays much more like a natural surface than any other you would play on."

Coming from one of the premier college facilities in the nation, Coach Vitello is looking forward to playing at one of the best ballparks in the Minor Leagues, giving his players a small taste of what could await at the next level.

"I've heard a lot of great things about the ballpark and obviously seen photos, so we're looking forward to getting down there and playing!"

Cox Diamond Invitational Tickets and Schedule
 

 

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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