After the Mike Honcho sweep, all of college baseball is in Tony Vitello's shadow | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

The SEC baseball series of the century this weekend was sure to resonate no matter what transpired between rival teams from Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

But who’d have ever guessed the name for which it’ll be remembered:

Mike Honcho.

Proof in two words that college baseball at present has become Tennessee coach Tony Vitello’s world, and everyone else – Tim Corbin’s prestigious Vanderbilt program included – is in the shadow. The top-ranked Vols left no doubt about that the past three days. 

“They were the far better team – in really every way,” Corbin said.

Three UT wins at Hawkins Field. Easy ones, too, by an overall count of 16-4. Tennessee’s program-record win streak, at 19 and counting, now includes the first sweep by a visiting SEC team at Vanderbilt since 2009.

And that started with Mr. Honcho.

SWEEP:Tennessee baseball sweeps Vanderbilt to cap best SEC start in program history

For anyone still unaware, Tennessee’s Jordan Beck hit a solo home run in the first inning of Game 1 that was taken off the scoreboard. He was ruled out by umpires after Vanderbilt’s catcher noticed and pointed out that Beck’s bat didn’t have the proper sticker approving it for use.

Vitello then did an in-game interview with ESPN’s broadcast team in which he joked, “I don’t even know that Jordan Beck should be at (the) University of Tennessee. He forged his transcript. He’s actually a 35-year-old man named Mike Honcho.”

How brilliant was this by Vitello?

It was so entertaining and so funny, everyone was too amused to consider how Vitello was downplaying and distracting from one of his players being caught using an illegal bat, a potentially embarrassing and serious circumstance.

There were suddenly Honcho T-shirts. Tennessee baseball’s own Twitter account reveled in the Honcho stuff, as did media covering this series. During Saturday’s broadcast on SEC Network, commentators repeatedly referenced Vitello’s interview, even asking Vols pitcher Chase Burns about it in the dugout.

Point: Seasoned political operatives don’t spin bad news this effectively.

Counterpoint: Vitello’s Vols were winning anyway, and doing it mostly with their arms, not their bats.

Vanderbilt pitched well in this series, but Tennessee’s staff was better. The Commodores scratched out little offensively against all three Vols starters, a trend that worsened for Vanderbilt as it went.

Tennessee limited Vanderbilt to a paltry .125 batting average during the three games. The Commodores scored in only three of 27 innings, and the runs were either manufactured via stolen bases or a solo home run. There were no extended rallies all weekend.

After Beck's home run was disallowed, Burns pitched solidly in Tennessee's 6-2 victory in Game 1. Then Chase Dollander allowed three hits in eight innings in Game 2. And then Drew Beam fired a complete-game, two-hit shutout to win a sleepy Game 3.

“Kept them guessing the entire time,” Beam said.

By Sunday afternoon, the mood at Hawkins Field had become much more subdued, other than perhaps the orange-clad fans having a good time.

That change didn't go unspoken by the visitors.

“You definitely notice that,” Tennessee junior Drew Gilbert said of the atmosphere. “I mean, you’re stomping on someone’s throat, they tend to get a little quieter.”

Ouch. Gilbert wasn't wrong, though.

It's by stunning force that Tennessee is overthrowing the sport's establishment. Whereas college baseball's elite once had to merely tolerate Vitello's scruffy Vols, now it is suddenly looking up to them. Tennessee's rough-around-edges crowd was able to briefly crash the party in Omaha last season but is primed to do real damage there in 2022.

Until this weekend, stuffy Vanderbilt – national finalists last season – could still look down at the ascending rowdies across the state and confidently say, "Yeah, but they're not at our level yet." Can't say that anymore. This entire weekend was a humbling gut punch for the Commodores. 

Perhaps we'd expected this series to be a measurement of how far Tennessee still had to go to catch Vanderbilt. But by the time it ended, the only question had to do with how much better these Vols are than these Commodores – and everyone else, too.

After reaching a No. 1 national ranking this past week, the Vols looked about as frightened of that spotlight as they were of Corbin's powerhouse at Vanderbilt.

Which was not at all.

“It’s a well-rounded team,” Vitello said, “and that’s been a work in progress for the last few years. I feel like we had it last year, but this year maybe they’ve got it a little bit better.”

Tennessee (27-1, 9-0 SEC) can hit. It can pitch even better. The only weakness, really, was how easily Vanderbilt (20-7, 4-5) was able to steal when it got runners on base, which wasn't often.

I keep going back to Tennessee's pitching. That's the clear difference between the 2021 and 2022 Vols – and why this feels like a beginning.

Burns is a freshman from Gallatin. Dollander is a sophomore. Beam is a freshman from Murfreesboro. And that's just the three arms from this weekend. There are more.

Starting pitching is the real reason these Vols have a chance to be special.

That’s assuming, of course, the kerfuffle with Beck’s bat doesn’t come back to bite them somehow.

Whether you viewed that as scandalous or silly probably has to do with which college team you support.

But given the gaudy numbers that Tennessee’s lineup has been putting up this season, it was reasonable to view that situation at least a little suspiciously. You’d better believe the rest of college baseball is going to keep a close watch. If a Vols hitter has this happen again, it won’t be explained away so easily.

Part of the problem is the lack of transparency and understanding of the murky process by which bats are examined and authorized in college baseball. 

That goes for something as basic as the stickers used to actually mark the bats. Beck said Friday night that his bat had the correct sticker but he noticed it flying off while hitting in the batting cage before the game. He said he didn’t think more of it until the umpire called him out.

Beck also said teammate Evan Russell’s bat was missing a sticker, too.

“It happens a lot,” Beck said. “It kind of goes on the grip, and it’ll fall off sometimes.”

Maybe so, but for what it’s worth, these are said to be heavy-duty stickers. During Saturday night’s broadcast, for instance, the announcers compared them in passing to what you’d put on a renewed license plate.

They didn’t elaborate on that point at the time, though.

I would say the statement being made by the Vols on the field was too loud. But no matter. They’d have probably been talking about Mike Honcho anyway.

And Teflon Tony. And his Big Orange Machine.

You're still entertained, of course. But by now, you should mostly just be impressed.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.