UT Head Coach Todd Raleigh
Feb. 12, 2011
"First, I want to thank everybody for coming out for Fan Appreciation Day. We had an unbelievable number today. It really allowed people to get an inside look at what it's like to come inside our locker room or just to see our facilities, so I think that turned out great. With that being said, we're six days away from playing. I know the weather isn't perfect but it's supposed to be good the next seven days. We're really looking forward to the season. I've never been this excited because of a lot of factors within our team. I can't wait to get started now. We have a short preseason. That's the way it is in college baseball now. Our players think they're ready. They thought they were ready the second day of practice so we're not quite there yet but we're looking forward to starting next week."
Q: Can you talk about the big rule changes with the new bats and also the pitch clock and what you've done to get ready for those?
A: "It's the BB core, which is essentially the density of the bat. It's really changed the game a little bit. Balls don't jump off the bat. They don't have that trampoline effect like they used to. Fortunately for us, we have a little more speed than we've had. We kind of recruited to it a little bit and saw it coming. Hopefully, we're ahead of the curve a little bit on that. What we see now is your good hitters are still good hitters. You don't see the little second baseman hit opposite-field home runs anymore. You still see guys getting their hits. I don't think that's going to change. I just think the home runs are going to go down. It's going to put more emphasis on pitching. It's going to put more emphasis on walking hitters and making errors. You're going to see more bunts and stolen bases. I don't think there's any question. As far as the pitch clock goes, essentially you have 90 seconds by the time the last out is made for the pitcher to be in delivery in the next inning. Of course, this isn't for your starting pitcher because he gets eight pitches but after the first time a reliever comes in, you only get five. We've been practicing. We have a clock out there on the scoreboard. The other rule is 20 seconds. By the time the catcher throws it back to the pitcher to be in his wind-up. That's not really a big factor. The 90 seconds is a little bit more of a factor. We've been practicing for it so I don't see an issue next week."
Q: Does the new core density make it a lot more like a wooden bat and if it does, does it give the players that want to go into the major leagues or try playing professional a little bit more of that feel?
A: "Yes and yes. It does have more of a wood bat feel. There's no question about it. I guess the best way for me to explain it with the BB core would be the bats now, especially the composite bats; they're hollow on the inside. When the ball would hit the bat, it would actually dent it a little bit. It would have a trampoline effect. It would stay on the bat a lot longer. It doesn't stay on the bat as long now. It would be almost like taking an aluminum bat, then stuff it with wood on the inside and that's the same kind of difference. As far as professional, the major league teams might like this because you might be able to identify college hitters that would be more successful at the next level. I don't know if that's going to happen yet, but I know that's what they're talking about. Like I said, I think the good hitters are still going to be good hitters. It's just the long ball that's going to be affected the most."
Q: You bring in a number of talented newcomers. Talk about some of those guys and what you expect them to contribute.
A: "We have a lot of guys that are going to impact the program. I think Andrew Toles is certainly one of those guys. This guy is a future first-rounder. I don't think there's any question about it. He can run, he can hit and he can throw so I think that's what you want. He's certainly going to impact the game as a true freshman. We have some other talented freshmen. Nick Williams and Ethan Bennett are both from Farragut. Ethan is fighting a little hamstring injury right now but Nick is going to play a tremendous role on the mound for us this year. Ethan is in the mix catching-wise. He's going to be a good hitter for us. Carter Watson is another freshman from Murfreesboro. A right-handed pitcher, he's going to play a big role in what we do. Jerod Peper, a junior college pitcher out of Oklahoma, is a big 6-5 righty that can really throw the ball. He's going to play a major role. Levi Dean, another big right-handed pitcher out of Washington, is going to play major role. Jon Reed, you guys don't know about Jon. Jon was a true freshman last year. He was one of the top players in the country. He couldn't pitch because he got hurt in high school with Tommy John. He's back and he's good. He'll probably be in our weekend rotation. Drew Steckenrider, one of the top players in the country coming here. Same thing last year. He pitched very limited but was up to 97 (mph) this spring. He's a tremendous talent. He's a lot more healthy. Zack Godley, a junior college pitcher out of Spartanburg Methodist, is a tremendous talent. Every guy I just mentioned is going to impact our program."
Q: In talking with some of the guys, there was almost a sense of restlessness. These guys are ready to get to that next level and get to the SEC tournament. Do you feel that? If so, what's it going to take?
A: "Yeah, it's going to take us staying healthy. Other than that, we just need to go out and do what we're capable of doing. I don't think there's any question, looking at the second half of last year, of what we're able to do. I know we came up a little short. It's a fine line in this business. We had our best hitter up in the bottom of the 10th. That team (Alabama) goes and wins the regionals and is one hit from the College World Series. We're tied. The other team we were tied with, LSU, wins the SEC. It comes down to the last weekend. You play nine weekends and we were right with those guys. I think that gives us a lot of confidence. Our guys are focused. They're really focused this year on doing that. You don't want to get ahead of yourself. It's a marathon, not a sprint, but I think the goals are in the right place."
Q: Pitching, how vital is that going to be with the change with the bat?
A: "It's going to be huge. In 20 years of playing and coaching, this is the first year I don't know what's going to happen all the way yet. You hear a lot of people are going to bunt with nobody out and a man on first. Every time it's first and second, the stolen bases. I don't know if that's all talk yet or not but I think the walks are going to be amplified. I think the errors are going to be amplified. You need a pitching staff that's going to fill up the zone. What I'm thinking when I preach to our players is, `Hey, if a team is going to score, make them get three hits in an inning.' Even if they do, that's a run or two. No longer, unless you walk people or make errors, are you going to see those five, six-run innings unless you give them to them. Pitching is going to be huge."
Q: You lost a lot of offense last year. Who are you really looking for to step up and pick up the slack?
A: "We did lose some big-name guys but Chris Fritts is a lot better than he was a year ago. He's going to play a big role. Andrew Toles, like I said, is as talented as anybody that has ever been in this program. Charley Thurber is a year better. Matt Duffy, who hit the best last year on our team in SEC play, has probably been our most consistent player all fall. He's been tremendous. He had to fight some things last year, some personal things, and he's a different kid this year because of it. Khayyan (Norfork), same kind of deal. First base, we're probably going to move Josh Liles who has been our center fielder the last couple years to first. He gives us a very athletic first baseman, probably the most athletic first baseman in the country. I think that's going to play a big role because of the short game this year. Tyler Horne, who had a tremendous fall for us, is going to play a big role in that. When you look at the guys we lost, we did lose them but if we were ever going to lose them last year was the year to do it because of the bats. I don't think Cody (Hawn) and Blake (Forsythe) would have those same kinds of numbers this year. I would take all of them back because Blake was one of the first catchers taken (in the draft) and Cody Hawn was one of the best hitters I've ever coached. But the guy that really hurts to lose is P.J. (Polk). His speed and stuff is going to be missed so hopefully we replace that a little bit. I feel good about our offense."
Q: Can Andrew (Toles) kind of pick up for for P.J.? There's a lot of hype around him but is he the same kind of player?
A: "He is. He's faster which is hard to believe because I thought P.J. might have been the fastest player in the SEC last year and he has a lot better arm than P.J. does. He's going to play center. I think he can do it. I really do. This guy is special."
Q: Do you expect better consistency from your pitching staff?
A: "I do. I think just having the guys back that we mentioned. We lost Stephen McCray. That's a blow to us. Steve Crnkovich logged a lot of innings for us last year so that hurts a little bit. I just think our depth is better. We've just been able to scrimmage at a higher level. Yesterday, we scrimmaged eight innings, and that was eight innings on both sides, and we walked two people. Now, I know it's not going to be that good all the time. I talked about Steven Gruver. He's going to be a high draft pick. He's a left-hander, junior and he has two years under his belt now. John Reed is going to be in that weekend rotation mix. He could be a true second-rounder on Sunday. He has as much talent as anybody I've ever coached. Ever. Jerod Peper, the junior college kid I talked about from Oklahoma, is fighting a little arm injury. He should be back, no problem, but probably won't start next weekend. Carter Watson, the true freshman out of Murfreesboro. It could be Rob Catapano, who is a different pitcher this year from Farragut. All those guys I see fighting for that spot. Levi Dean is another guy that could be fighting in that spot. We've never had this many options before. Even the guys that don't start are going to be able to come out of the bullpen now. I like that part of it."
Q: How do you like to use the versatile of Matt Ramsey?
A: "We're going to use Matt in a lot of different ways. Matt has played all over for us since he's been here. Right now, we're thinking about him being a catcher. He's fighting a little injury too. I don't think he's going to be game-ready to pitch next weekend. I know he won't be. All indications tell us he's going to be back pretty soon. Right now, he's probably going to be our catcher. He's going to be a catcher-closer. You haven't seen that combination in college baseball in a long time. He was up to 98 miles-per-hour this fall. He has one of the best arms in the country. He's probably the premier closer in the country. I don't want to lose him in that role, but at the same time I like his toughness behind the plate. Ethan Bennett is fighting a hamstring injury too so both of our catchers are down right now but hopefully, we'll get them both back quick."
Q: You played around with your lineup a lot last year. Is that something you see yourself doing again or are you going to try to get something set and stick with it?
A: "No, I'm going to try to stick with it a little bit more. I think it's going to be a different type of lineup because of the bat. Now, we're thinking about having two leadoff hitters instead of one. Instead of putting a guy one-two and eight-nine, maybe put a faster guy in the five-hole now than what you used to because the home run is not a big factor anymore. We're going to look at it more as, `OK, who can really hit the fastball?' If Andrew Toles is on first base, that hitter is going to get a lot of fastballs because he's going to second and he's probably going to third because he can run. It's the same with Khayyan. We're going to try to base it more around that. It was easy with Cody and Blake. Those were our three-four hitters and P.J. was our one. We're going to try to stick with it a little bit more this year."
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the base running and what Coach Lawson has done?
A: "It's been interesting because it's a good year for this to happen. I know that I like to play the long ball and we've been successful with it. I think two out of the last three years, we have hit maybe the second or third-most home runs in Tennessee history. I can't change the bats, so we're going to go more towards this. He's just done a great job of getting our guys to be too aggressive. We have a little program in place. It's probably too complicated to talk about right here but essentially, it's getting everybody involved in base running and not just your traditional guys that can run. We're hoping that's going to create a lot of pressure on the other team. We're hoping that's going to give our hitters more fastballs."
Q: Can you talk about Rob (Catapano) and how he's doing physically?
A: "He's just healthier. I know he's had more surgeries than I have fingers. He had surgery before he came here when he left (North) Carolina. We thought he was fixed but he couldn't get his elbow extended. Last year, it just wasn't right. It didn't look right. Low and behold, they went in and found something else and did a surgery. It wasn't major. He's able to come back this year and he's just been a different pitcher. He's not all the way back yet but nobody would recognize him from last year. He's throwing a lot harder. It's a lot easier. He's such a tremendous competitor. He's probably our best competitor. He goes out and gives everything he has every single time. You have to try to pull for this guy. I just wish he had this surgery earlier and I think he would be a lot further along but he's doing well."
Q: Are you set on the starting lineup for this coming week?
A: "I think Steven Gruver Friday night and John Reed Saturday. My Sunday starter is not determined yet. Like I said, Matt Ramsey and Ethan Bennett aren't 100 percent behind the plate yet. Other than that, Matt Duffy will be at third, Zach Osborne is going to be our guy at shortstop, Khayyan (Norfork) is going to be at second and it looks like Josh Liles will be at first, although, Davis Morgan is another junior college player that's fighting in there. Charley Thurber will be at right field. Andrew Toles at center and Chris Fritts at left. Chris Pierce is a guy that I didn't even talk about. He's a junior college player that can catch, play second, play third, play center and play left. He's going to play a big role this year. That's pretty much set, but not all the way."
Q: Talking to the guys in the locker room, they said team chemistry seems to be a lot better. Is that something you see?
A: "I don't think there's any question. It's hard to put a drill in for that. You have to try to recruit towards that. We try to do some things to lead the guys to that but you can't make them like each other. I think our guys overall are working towards the same common goal. These guys do like each other so it is a different feeling. They're pretty focused. People don't understand. When a kid is 19 or 20 and he's looking at getting a million dollars, it's not easy keeping him focused on the team. He has to deal with his advisor. He has to deal with his parents. He's under tremendous pressure. It's tough. It's a very big distraction to what we do but we're certainly not the only team in the country that deals with that. But I see it more on the team this year as opposed to those things. This team is all about winning right now."
Q: With such tremendous facilities, how is that going to help out? Have you already started to see how that's starting to show?
A: "Yeah, I have. Just the number of swings we have taken already this year has way outdone all of last year by far. I see it on the field. Last year was a tough year. We didn't have a cage last year because they built the MVP room and we kind of lost the indoor to football. Sometimes, literally we put socks together and swung inside. I know it's hard to believe at the University of Tennessee or any school in the country but we didn't have a cage. I think this year I've definitely seen, not just from a recruiting standpoint, how good our cages our and how great our facility is but actually physically I have seen the changes in our swings and we seem to be sharper. We're very blessed with that."