Then a worst-case scenario unfolded in front of Vitello’s eyes in the fifth inning Friday.
Center fielder Drew Gilbert spun toward home-plate umpire Kellen Levy, irate with a strike call and unleashed a string of choice words at Levy and was ejected.
“He let it spill over a little bit there,” Vitello said. “That is at their discretion what is and what isn’t (ejection-worthy). I sure enjoy competing with him and would like to do it again. You can’t take it back.”
Gilbert, Tennessee’s heart and soul, will miss Saturday’s game against the Fighting Irish as the Vols play to keep their season alive. UT lost 8-6 to Notre Dame. The Vols have to win back-to-back games to advance to the College World Series.
They’ll have to do it without Gilbert and pitching coach Frank Anderson, who was ejected after Gilbert.
“Certainly, pretty well-documented that the kid likes to win and plays with a lot of passion,” Vitello said. “At times, it is hard to control him. I joked at Georgia Southern last year to the umpire that I don’t have control over him. I can’t be on the field with him. I wish I could. I would kill to play with that kid.”
Umpire crew chief Billy Van Raaphorst said in a statement that Gilbert had “argued several pitches during the top of the second inning, steaming in from centerfield.” Van Raaphorst indicated that Gilbert was warned between innings to only direct comments “to his team, not our crew or the other team.” Gilbert explained “he just gets excited.”
“During the fifth inning following strike one, Tennessee batter Gilbert yelled an expletive, followed by another expletive as he walked out of the box and was subsequently ejected,” Van Raaphorst said.
Gilbert took a first-pitch ball from Notre Dame reliever Alex Rao. Rao’s second pitch was down and in to Gilbert. Levy called it a strike, prompting Gilbert to turn to face Levy. He unleashed a few words before putting his bat under his right arm and adjusting his batting gloves while continuing to chirp.
The junior outfielder turned around and saw Levy had tossed him from the game and his jaw dropped. He spun in disbelief.
Vitello and Anderson burst from the UT dugout amid the chaos. Vitello said he didn’t say anything, but wasn’t sure who had been ejected. Anderson was tossed for the second time this season.
“We talked about as sincere of a conversation as you can have back in the locker room,” Vitello said. “Frank wanted to make sure Drew didn’t do anything to further worsen things or get a suspension.”
Jared Dickey entered in Gilbert’s place and grounded out to third. He played the rest of the game in left field, while left fielder Seth Stephenson moved to center field.
Gilbert was hitting .373 with 11 homers and 70 RBIs entering Friday. He has started 55 games in center field and has been the cleanup hitter for the past two seasons.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.