Tennessee baseball emphatically rejected false claims made by an ESPN announcer Friday night that starting catcher Evan Russell had failed a drug test due to enhancing performance drugs and was suspended for the remainder of the season.
“Evan Russell’s absence last night had nothing to do with any violation of team, NCAA, or SEC rules,” a UT spokesperson said in a statement Saturday.
Russell missed Tennessee’s 10-0 win against Alabama State in the NCAA Tournament opener on Friday because he was dealing with anxiety and stress, his father said on social media.
A source told Knox News on Saturday that Russell is available to play Saturday against Campbell in the winners bracket game. Russell had a meeting with UT head team physician Chris Klenck on Saturday morning and was cleared to play.
ESPN announcer Troy Eklund, a former Arkansas outfielder, made his false statements Friday night during the broadcast of Oklahoma State’s 10-5 win against Missouri State, going so far as to say Russell was done for the year and the entire team would be subjected to drug tests, neither of which is true.
Announcers later reported Vitello’s postgame comments about Russell being sick, but continued to refer to “reports and speculation,” as if there was another reason for Russell’s absence.
UT has “been in contact with ESPN,” a spokesperson said. “ESPN is handling the situation and we are expecting a public apology from them later today.”
“I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Tennessee’s Evan Russell and the Volunteer program for inaccurate, unsourced information I used Friday night during the Stillwater Regional,” Eklund said during Missouri State vs. Grand Canyon on Saturday. “It was used in error and should not have been referenced. I regret any hurt or harm that it might have caused.”
Jason Russell, Russell’s dad, also refuted the claim. He indicated Russell had a meeting scheduled with doctors Saturday morning after a “health issue … that kept him from playing.”
“He hasn’t failed any type of test or anything,” Jason Russell wrote on Twitter.
Tennessee surprised the college baseball world when it announced shortly before Friday’s game that Russell would not be available against the Hornets.
Vitello shared that Russell texted him Friday morning saying he was sick, which led to his absence.
UT started redshirt freshman Charlie Taylor at catcher against Alabama State. Taylor went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. He had an RBI on a safety squeeze in the sixth.
Russell has started 50 games for Tennessee this season, batting .299 with 13 homers.
“Thrilled to update that Evan Russell is feeling better and back with the team,” UT athletics director Danny White wrote on Twitter. “Sad that over the last 24 hours this young man has had to endure speculation and criticism.”
Russell has 38 career homers, tied with Todd Helton for the Tennessee program record. The Lexington, Tennessee, native has played in 228 games, one short of Pete Derkay’s program record.
“Thanks for everyone’s concern today,” Jason Russell wrote on Facebook. “Life is more than baseball. But to let everyone know Evan is good. Thanks for the prayers!!!”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.