The UT baseball team's ability to adapt to a new atmosphere in the clubhouse will be a recurring theme as the 2011 campaign begins.
The NCAA's changes to bat specifications and its implementation of a new pitch-clock will be challenges faced by every Division I team this season. For the Vols, adjusting to the loss of seven players to professional baseball and the addition of 14 new players will be an internal challenge.
The hollowed-core aluminum bats will have a significantly denser center this season, which will reduce the explosive pop off the bat that fans have watched in recent past. The pitch-clock is baseball's equivalent to basketball's shot-clock, as pitchers will have 20 seconds to deliver the next pitch when the bases are empty. As for the 14 new Vols, some will be called upon to fill the gaps left by P.J. Polk, Blake Forsythe and Cody Hawn, among others.
Coach Todd Raleigh seemed unfazed by the ample amount of change the Vols must address as the season opens against Wisconsin-Milwaukee at home in Lindsey Nelson Stadium Friday at 4:00 pm. New bats, new rules, new players — none of these factors made Raleigh nervous.
He addressed the bats with optimism during the team's media day this past Saturday.
"Fortunately for us, we have a little more speed than we've had," Releigh said. "We kind of recruited to (the bat changes) a little bit and saw it coming. Hopefully, we're ahead of the curve a little bit on that.
"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."
The Vols are hoping the increased emphasis on "small ball" will play to their favor. Losing the power of Hawn and Forsythe will not be as hard to overcome with the bats being more similar to wood. However, losing Polk's speed and dynamic playmaking ability might raise a red flag on the surface.
Raleigh expressed confidence in freshman Andrew Toles, during his endorsement of the Georgia native, who was a 2010 fourth-round draft pick of the Florida Marlins.
"We have a lot of guys that are going to impact the program," he said. "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."
Assistant coach Ash Lawson related to the incoming class as well as the theme of a new atmosphere. A former 2006 Scout of the Year for the San Diego Padres, Lawson will be starting his first season as one of Raleigh's aides on Friday. His confidence paralleled the head coach's in regards to the ability of the Vols' players. He spoke to his favorable perception of both Knoxville and the team.
"I couldn't be more impressed with the city of Knoxville as a whole," Lawson said. "It has a ton to offer a family. I'm amazed at the support this university gets from the town. It has to be one of the best college towns in America. The guys in the program have been very impressive to me, just their willingness to try new things and their desire to get better."
The new-look Diamond Vols will seek to continue their success at home from last season (20-15) while improving both on the road (10-11) and in conference (12-18). The SEC's competitiveness will be a tough task to handle, but the team hopes its fresh outlook and Raleigh's optimism will provide great success in 2011.