Vanderbilt gives Vols opening for late-season run

Friday, April 29, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 18

If the Tennessee baseball team makes a run in the SEC tournament May 24-29, it may look back to last weekend’s series against No. 4-ranked Vanderbilt as a turning point in the season.

The Vols reveled in victory at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. After losing Friday’s opener 6-0, UT beat the Commodores 2-1 Saturday and claimed the series with a 5-3 win Sunday.

It was UT’s first SEC series win of the season and a stunning result for two programs that have gone in polar opposite directions in recent years.

Vanderbilt has reached the NCAA tournament each of the past 10 seasons, won the national championship in 2014, and was runner-up last year. Coach Tim Corbin has built one of college baseball’s top programs in his 14 seasons at Vanderbilt.

Tennessee hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since the 2005 team reached the College World Series under former coach Rod Delmonico.

Two years later, Delmonico was fired, and the Vols played the next four years under Coach Todd Raleigh, who was fired after the 2011 season.

UT now is in its fifth season with Dave Serrano as coach, and it’s a pivotal year for him and the program. Serrano’s current contract at Tennessee ends this year. He’s coaching for his job.

Serrano doesn’t take the Vanderbilt victories lightly.

“I have a lot of respect for that program,” Serrano said after the weekend’s wins.

“We want to be like them. It’s just taken longer, but I think it’s great for our kids. I think it’s wonderful for our kids. It’s wonderful for me too. I’m not going to deny that.”

It won’t mean anything if the Vols falter down the stretch.

Tennessee (23-17, 6-12 SEC) enters this weekend’s series at Missouri (20-21, 4-14) tied for 11th with Arkansas in the league standings. The top 12 teams advance to the SEC Tournament.

After playing at Missouri, the Vols have three more SEC series: at home against Florida and LSU and at Georgia.

“We have a lot of work to do, but that win (against Vanderbilt) helps this team and this program for the longevity of the rest of the year,” Serrano said.

“We still have to take care of business, but it sure was a good shot in the arm for what our guys were able to accomplish this weekend, and I’m so happy for them.”

Vanderbilt (30-10, 10-8 SEC) plays host to Georgia this weekend. Its last three SEC series are at Texas A&M, at Florida, and against Auburn in Nashville.

Corbin doesn’t plan to let the losses to Tennessee fester. The Commodores lost two of three games against the Vols during their NCAA championship season of 2014 when they went 51-21, 17-13 in the SEC.

“You don’t come through the SEC unscathed,” Corbin explained after the weekend games in Knoxville.

“There’s going to be certain things that happen to you during the course of the year that make you think a little bit. But you know what? It’s all how we respond right now. We’re in this situation. Now we’ve got to respond to it.”

Serrano Finds ‘Clarity’

Serrano said the weekend series against Vanderbilt not only provided two wins, but also “some clarity” in his roster decisions.

Topping that list was the performance by senior left-hander Andy Cox, who threw five scoreless innings and got saves Saturday and Sunday.

Cox (2-3, 6.02 ERA), who has seven starts this season, was a potential Sunday starter against Vanderbilt, but entered in relief for Zach Warren in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game.

The former preferred walk-on from St. Benedict High in Bartlett, didn’t allow a hit in four innings and struck out five.

On Sunday, Cox went to the mound in the eighth with two out and runners on first and second. He hit Liam Sabino with a pitch to load the bases and ended the inning by striking out Connor Kaiser. He gave up a leadoff single to Tyler Campbell in the ninth and retired the next three.

“It sure is a good luxury to know I’ve got a guy like that coming out of the bullpen,” Serrano said of Cox. “I think some clarity came to me this weekend. I think we found a third baseman in Jared Pruett. You can’t underestimate what the young man did all weekend.

“Brodie (Leftridge) played a great center field this weekend.”

Serrano started freshman Will Neely of Hardin Valley Academy in Sunday’s game against Vanderbilt freshman Patrick Raby, former standout at Farragut.

It was a pitching rematch of the 2015 Class AAA state championship game won by Hardin Valley 10-2. In that game, the Hawks scored eight runs in the ninth inning off Eric Lessig, who relieved Raby after the eighth.

In Sunday’s game against Vanderbilt, Neely (1-0, 3.20 ERA) went six innings and gave up six hits and three runs (two earned) with two walks and five strikeouts.

Vanderbilt freshman Patrick Raby didn’t get the homecoming he was hoping in Knoxville on Sunday. He pitched well, a no-hitter through four innings, but gave up two runs in the fifth.

-- Photo By Thomas Mcewen/Csm Cal Sport Media Via Ap Images

“It doesn’t surprise me that (Neely) did that,” Serrano pointed out. “I’ve seen it coming out of the bullpen. I think what I saw today is that he’s probably a little bit more suited to be a starter.”

It was Neely’s first start of the season – and maybe not his last with Cox coming out of the bullpen.

“I’m going to use Andy when I need to use Andy when I can smell victory,” Serrano added, “and for Friday and Saturday, if we haven’t had to use him for whatever reason, then I have that option to start him for Sunday, but now I know I have Will Neely as an option to start, too.

“I think from what you’ll see, there’s other guys who can fit in pieces, but with what Andy and Hunter (Martin) bring at the end of the game with their stuff, lefty and righty, those are two guys I’m going to rely on heavily to lead us to victory when we have leads.”

Raby (5-0, 1.72) went five innings and gave up two runs (both earned) with two walks and five strikeouts. He held UT hitless through four innings before giving up both hits and runs in the fifth.

“I thought (Raby) was good for four innings,” Corbin said after the game.

“In the fifth inning he started to tire a little bit, and didn’t get ahead (in counts). He got out of that inning, but he started to tire a little bit. I liked the way he came out of the gate. I thought he pitched good.”

Vandy’s Hitting Slump

Vanderbilt hit .188 (18 of 96) in the three games against the Vols as its team batting average dropped from .283 to .279 for the season.

In SEC games, the Commodores were hitting .248 going into the series against Tennessee and had its average fall to .239 in league games.

Vanderbilt had six hits in Friday’s game against Tennessee, including a three-run homer by Bryan Reynolds. The Commodores had four hits Saturday and eight Sunday.

“You’ve got to give Tennessee all the credit,” Corbin said. “They played well. They played inspired baseball. They pitched well. They pitched well when they got in tight jams. You’ve got to give Cox credit to come out of the bullpen twice and pitch them out of very difficult situations. I credit what Tennessee did.”

Vanderbilt has three batters hitting better than .300 entering this weekend’s series against Georgia: right fielder Jeren Kendall (.338), center fielder Reynolds (.326), and designated hitter/first baseman Ethan Paul (.316). Reynolds is tied for the SEC lead with nine homers.

While the Commodores are ninth in the SEC in team batting average, they are second in team ERA (2.99) behind Florida (2.82).

Kyle Wright (4-3, 1.88 ERA, second best in SEC) took the loss in Saturday’s game when UT’s Zach Warren and Cox combined for the shutout.

Jordan Sheffield (6-2, 2.54) and Collin Snider combined for the shutout in Vanderbilt’s win Friday.

Ben Bowden (2-1, 3.63 ERA) was the losing pitcher Sunday in relief of Raby.

“We’re just moving forward,” Corbin said. “The kids have exams. It’s on to the next step. … They just have to be resilient and have to move on from every experience, positive or negative.”

Vols Moving Forward

Tennessee enters the Missouri series fifth in the SEC in team batting average (.301) and ninth in team ERA (3.86).

In SEC games, the Vols are hitting .270, and their team ERA is 4.99.

Senior second baseman Derek Lance leads the Vols in hitting (.358) and ranks 11th in the SEC.

Tennessee has five other players hitting better than .300: Benito Santiago (.353), Vincent Jackson (.352), Nick Senzel (.340), Chris Hall (.329), and Jordan Rodgers (.310).

Lance is hitting .339 in SEC games, while Rodgers is hitting .310, Jackson .304, and Santiago .297.

Rodgers, a junior first baseman from Memphis University School, is second in the SEC in RBIs with 53. Senzel, of Farragut High, is third with 48 and Jackson of Luella (Georgia) High is fourth with 46.

Lance, who played at Bearden High School, went 2-for-2 with two RBIs in Sunday’s win over Vanderbilt. He had an RBI single in the fifth inning and drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth.

“We’ve kind of been scuffling a little bit, so it was a big deal to go out there and take this series, especially against a quality team like (Vanderbilt),” Lance said. “I think it will propel us going forward into our next few SEC weekends.”

Two of the Vols’ remaining SEC series are against teams with current losing records in the league, Missouri and Georgia. UT’s other remaining league opponents, Florida and LSU, have winning SEC records.

Serrano expects every game to be tight.

“When you’re trying to climb the ladder, there’s no easy victories in the SEC,” he said. “It’s a battle every weekend.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.