Here's how Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello knows it's time to argue with the umpire

Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel

If you think Tony Vitello’s barking at the umpire is spontaneous, look closer.

The Tennessee baseball coach apparently has a method for arguing the strike zone, and its source is in center field.

Relief pitcher Kirby Connell said Vitello often relies on center fielder Drew Gilbert to let him know if the umpire called a ball on a pitch that should’ve been a strike.

Vitello is sure to look in that direction when the No. 1 Vols play Notre Dame on Friday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in the best-of-three super regional.

“If there’s a pitch that’s pretty close to being a strike, (Vitello) looks out to the Drew,” Connell said. “If Drew throws his hands up, then (Vitello) knows it should’ve been a strike.”

PREVIEW:Why Tennessee will — and won't — beat Notre Dame to reach College World Series

PREDICTIONS:How Tennesee will fare against Notre Dame in Knoxville Super Regional

VOLLIE FINGERS:Kirby Connell, via children's hospital and tube of mustache wax, became Vols cult hero

That tips off Vitello to get into the ear of the umpire, which he sometimes does in dramatic fashion.

In April, Vitello was ejected and suspended four games for bumping third-base umpire Jeffrey Macias during a win over Alabama. That incident was complicated, but it appeared to be rooted in the Vols’ frustration over Macias’ strike zone as the home-plate umpire the night before.

Vitello couldn’t have picked a better player than Gilbert as an objective judge of the strike zone. He’s a disciplined hitter, touting the best batting average (.373) and fewest strikeouts (32) of any UT starter. He has also pitched during his career.

But Gilbert’s perspective from center field helps Vitello the most.

“Drew is very trustworthy. (Vitello) trusts him a lot. And he’s got the best view in the house,” said Connell, who touts a team-best 1.45 ERA.

"You can ask the catcher (about the strike zone), but the catcher is going to be a little biased. Drew has got a pretty good view because he’s right in the middle of the field.”

When UT beat Campbell in the regional Saturday, Connell tossed four innings of middle relief to earn the win. He relied on Gilbert to signal to Vitello that the umpire was missing calls on a few key pitches.

“On one pitch, I threw a curveball, and it couldn’t have been more middle-middle,” Connell said. “He called it a ball, and (Vitello) is throwing his hands up and squatting down and sitting against the wall.

“(Pitching coach Frank Anderson) and Coach (Vitello) will yell and say everything they need to say for me. They’ve got my back, and I love that about them.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.