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Mike Lopresti | | May 8, 2022

Along with Tennessee, Ben Joyce is taking the college baseball world by storm

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – The parents responsible for giving the world a college pitcher who can throw a baseball 105 miles an hour are in row 12, section 101.

“I never envisioned where we are now. Ever,” Alan Joyce is saying.

“It’s hard to get your mind around that. He’s a 21-year-old kid,” Joni Joyce is agreeing.

Somewhere down below, their son Ben Joyce is getting ready to face Kentucky, with the rest of the Tennessee Volunteers. The most fearsome team in college baseball is in the house — the lineup that has hit 118 homers, the pitching staff that has the nation’s best earned run average, the No. 1 ranked juggernaut that is 41-4 and started 17-1 in league play, something nobody from the baseball-rich SEC had ever done before.

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They’re all here. Trey Lipscomb, the senior third baseman who paid his dues and had only 19 RBI his first three seasons, but 65 this year. Luc Lipcius and Redmond Walsh, the first baseman and reliever who both hold degrees in aerospace engineering. The weekend rotation of Chase Burns, Chase Dollander and Drew Beam, who are 21-1 with a 2.34 earned run average, and are now joined by Blake Tidwell, late to the party because of injury with a 1.93 ERA.

Jordan Beck is here, the big-hitting rightfielder who had a home run taken away at Vanderbilt because the umpire said he was using an illegal bat. After the game, coach Tony Vitello — going to his heater in sarcasm — borrowed a character from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and deadpanned, “I don’t even know if Jordan Beck should be at the University of Tennessee. He forged his transcript and is actually a 35-year-old man named Mike Honcho.” Which is why there are so many Tennessee fans in the Kentucky Proud Park stands this Thursday night wearing No. 27 shirts with the name Honcho on the back.

Those Volunteers have become the must-see act in college baseball. Including — and maybe especially — Ben Joyce. His last game against Auburn, he sent a pitch to the plate at 105.5 miles an hour. Only one man in history — Aroldis Chapman — has ever been clocked higher and that was 12 years ago in the major leagues.

His parents were in the stands for the Auburn game. They always are.

”It’s something pretty special that I imagine he’ll remember for the rest of his life. I know I will,” Joni says of the 105.5 pitch. “I’ll remember that sunny beautiful afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee. We didn’t know (about it being the second fastest pitch). But a couple of people around us were, like, hey look at this tweet.”

Can a father feel the way his son supercharges a crowd? “I would like to be in somebody else’s shoes outside our circle to see how they look at it,” Alan said.

The 100 MPH pitch carries a certain magic, even though it is not the rare event the way it used to be. Coming into this series against Kentucky, Joyce has hit that number on 227 pitches this season. He has reached 103 on 43 pitches, 28 last weekend against Auburn on the day of the 105.5. He is the flame thrower everyone wants to see, home or away. It’s also good for the buzz if there is a catchy nickname, and he has that, too. Here comes The Volunteer Fireman.

The 2022 legend of Joyce has all the required unlikely plot twists. How the 6-5 redshirt junior had never thrown a Division I pitch until this season, and this time a year ago was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. How he grew up 12 miles from the Tennessee campus in Knoxville, he and his identical twin brother Zach, who could throw in the high 90s himself. The X and Y chromosomes of Alan and Joni certainly came with a velo gene.

How physical aches and shutdowns in high school hurt the recruiting chances of both, so they headed for community college until Tennessee offered them a chance. When they sat in Vitello’s office and committed on Sept. 17, 2019, it was on their 19th birthday, and they were just across the river from the hospital where they were born, Ben arriving first by four minutes.

How Zach felt a pop in his arm in 2019 and was soon headed for Tommy John surgery, and the ordeal would soon have him stepping away from the game. Ben felt his own pop in 2020 and faced his own Tommy John. They have always done so many things alike. “They’ll finish each other’s sentences,” Joni says. “They’ll ask you the same questions, even now. I’ll get a text from one of them and an hour later I’ll get the same text from the other one.” And Alan tells the story of how his sons had their own bedrooms, but it was not uncommon for each to go into his room and dress and come out wearing the same thing.

And to think, that mirror image even included Tommy John surgery.

By this rainy Thursday in Lexington, Ben has become one of the sensations of 2022, his renown exploding like one of his fastballs. Alan and Joni are here as is custom. “We made the decision we’re not going to miss a moment of this season,” Joni says. Zach is back home in Knoxville mowing the grass.

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It is 10:51 p.m. when No. 44 comes in from the right field bullpen. The score is deadlocked 2-2 in the 10th inning, as Tennessee’s mighty offense has stalled. Kentucky has runners on first and second with two out and Hunter Jump at bat. When Joyce goes into the stretch, several arms in the crowd hold up phones to snap pictures. The grandstand grows dead quiet as he delivers.

You wonder what they’re thinking in row 12.

Joni says when the season started, “I wasn’t even paying attention to the miles per hour. I was just excited to see him back up on the mound, throwing, living his dream being at UT. I usually don’t (look at the radar gun speed on the board). I’m just kind of focused in on, oh, that was a good pitch. And then I’ll look up and it’s gone already and I won’t know. But now you can kind of tell because the crowd gets into it.”

Alan: “I’ve caught myself doing that (looking for the speed). I’m his dad but I’m also turning into a fan. I just don’t want him to hit anybody or walk anybody and be effective. I will actually take the time to look around and see how people are responding to him at moments.”

His first pitch this night is 102. Called a ball. “I took the first one, just wanting to see what it was like,” Jump will say later. “It’s no joke. It’s actually 100-plus for sure.”

The next is 102, then 101, then 102, then 103, then 102. Jump drills that to deep right, where Beck leaps to make the catch near the wall. “I don’t know what it feels like hitting a ball that’s coming in at 102,” Jump says. “I thought I got all of that.”

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Joyce is back in the 11th for eight more pitches, all 100 or higher, but six are balls and Vitello calls again for his bullpen. The game stretches nearly five hours to the bottom of the 13th when the Wildcats win on a walk-off single.

In the end, Tennessee has stranded 16 runners and struck out 15 times, getting only five hits, all single. It is only the sixth game in 46 without home run and only the second without an extra-base hit. The other was against Tennessee Tech when the teams used wood bats. “It just seemed painful,” Vitello says of his team’s dry spell at the plate.

Even if Joyce has not had his A game, he has provided the fire they customers have come to see. The parents look on with a little wonder, too.

Joni : “If somebody said, `I’ll give you a million dollars to stand in there.’ I’m not sure I would do it.”

Alan: “I’d do it for a million. But he better throw a strike, man.”

The father has a couple of thoughts about where all those 100-plus clockings have come from — his son’s attention to diet and working out. “His conditioning is beyond off the charts crazy. He was taking it serious in sixth grade,” Alan says. “That has a lot to do with this. Without that nutrition, without that strength, I wonder where that number would be.”

Also, those shutdowns in high school and the year lost to surgery might have had an upside: Thousands of pitches he never threw. “Ben doesn’t have that on his arm. He’s fresh,” his father says. “That’s my theory on all of this.”

Thursday turns out to be Joyce’s only appearance in Lexington. The unpredictability of baseball is on full display as Kentucky — which came into the weekend 7-14 in the SEC — takes the series by winning two of three games.

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“It was an odd weekend,” Vitello says after the series finale. “We want to win every game. I know it didn’t look like it this weekend at times, which kind of disheartens me. We had an amazing crowd come out to all three dates.

"At some point in a year, you have to have your worst weekend, or your weekend where you don’t play your best. You’d like to look back and think this was something that wasn’t the norm for our team and yet something we can take a lot from. I think our guys have set the standards kind of higher and that’s what they’re living by.”

Indeed, Tennessee still seems a force that will be hard to keep away from Omaha. If that happens, Ben Joyce will have another seven weeks to wow college baseball. In row 12, they only yearn to savor the last moments, slightly dazzled it has all turned out this way.

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