KNOXVILLE — Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson thought Redmond Walsh was a student manager the first time he saw the then-redshirt freshman pitcher.
Suffice it to say, Walsh has outperformed any assumption Anderson, Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello and anybody else had about him before he ever threw a pitch for the Volunteers two years ago.
The Alcoa High School alum became one of the most reliable closers in the SEC out of nowhere last season and enters Tennessee’s season opener against Western Illinois at 2 p.m. today (Friday, Feb. 14) as the most proven reliever on a deep pitching staff.
“It’s crazy to see how it all has changed,” Walsh told The Daily Times. “(The coaching staff) really doesn’t pick favorites at all. Whoever works, whoever does what they want, those are the guys that are going to play for them.
“Even though I started at that spot, I’m in a different spot now.”
Walsh was named a National College Baseball Writers Association Preseason Second Team All-American while making the NCBWA’s Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List after posting a team-leading 1.38 ERA with nine saves last season.
He has made a name for himself despite possessing stuff not normally associated with a dominant arm out of the bullpen.
Walsh’s fastball sits in the upper-80s and sneaks up on opposing hitters, and he adds to that deception with a changeup that allowed him to rack up 48 strikeouts over 45 2/3 innings a year ago.
“Stuff by analytics terms is now spin rate and velocity, but a guy that has to hit off these pitchers knows that there is a lot more that goes into it: Deception, movement, location, all those things,” Vitello said. “Even though it’s not overpowering, I think he has confidence in what he brings to the table stuff-wise, but really it’s about character and intangibles. I think he has that level of success because of how he goes about his business every day.
“He is kind of that guy that steps into the arena and there is no question he has done as much as his opponent work ethic-wise, and that in turn gives the coaching staff confidence that even if it doesn’t go well, we can lay our head on the pillow and rest pretty easy that night.”
That constant grind is why Walsh has emerged as Tennessee’s go-to stopper.
The left-hander is three years removed from Tommy John surgery, which prevented him from pitching his freshman season and limited him to 17 2/3 innings the following season, although Vitello said “we probably slighted him for innings” before proclaiming he would have “a big role” in the Vols’ bullpen in 2019.
Nobody, not even Walsh, could have envisioned the impact he would have on a historic Tennessee season that included 40 wins and a NCAA Regional berth for the first time since 2005.
The ABCA/Rawlings South All-Region performer logged his first career save against Indiana on Feb. 22, 2019.
He closed the door on then-No. 5 Mississippi State with 2 1/3 scoreless innings on April 6, and escaped a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the ninth inning to propel UT to a win over Liberty and into the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Regional final.
“One thing about being a competitive person is you always have to have that work ethic,” Walsh said. “Every day you have to do a little bit more than the next person because that’s what separates you from somebody else.”
Walsh may be even better this season after adding a curveball to his arsenal.
It is still a work in progress, but an offseason spent experimenting with different grips to try and maximize spin rate for a sharper break has him confident in what it can accomplish in partnership with his fastball and changeup.
“I’ve thrown it a lot,” Walsh said. “The thing about learning new pitches is it can be different for everything. My changeup, I picked it up pretty quickly, but the curveball has taken me longer. I’m on my third year and I’m still working on it.
“It’s a constant thing. You just have to work harder and focus every single day on getting a little bit better with it.”
If the effort put into developing his curveball translates as well as it has for everything else in his career, it will be a quality pitch.
The commitment to the process is why Walsh has gone from being mistaken for somebody washing jerseys to being one of the best Tennessee pitchers wearing one.
“He’s the same guy,” Vitello said. “We sure didn’t think he was worth a darn when we first saw him because he’s not the most imposing guy ... but he has big stones, and those have been there from Day 1.”