The Diamond Vols produced a gem of a series win against UC Irvine last weekend and a 7-3 victory over UNC Asheville on Wednesday, but a tougher test awaits this upcoming weekend as No. 10 Ole Miss travels to Knoxville for a three-game series.
Dave Serrano was pleased with the effort against the Anteaters of UC Irvine, telling WNML radio on Monday, “This team is all about doing this for each other. It’s a close team and that’s what I think will get us through the next 10 weekends.”
Tennessee took two out of three from the Anteaters over the weekend, outscoring UC Irvine 26-7.
Under Dave Serrano, Tennessee has posted a 39-78 record. In his previous stop at Cal State Fullerton, Serrano was 72-23 in the Big West Conference, including a trip to the College World Series in 2009. This senior-laden team is Serrano’s best chance to rekindle the success he had out west.
Tennessee begins Southeastern Conference play against the Rebels, a squad that is 15-1 on the season. Ole Miss is one of eight SEC teams that are ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll Top 25. In addition to this weekend’s series against the Rebels, the Vols will have to play four more ranked teams in SEC play, including No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 8 LSU and No. 12 South Carolina. The Vols got a favorable conference schedule by SEC standards, avoiding three other ranked teams in conference, including No. 3 Texas A&M.
Serrano says that he likes how Tennessee matches up with Ole Miss. “I like how we match up with everybody,” he said on Wednesday. “Ole Miss is a good baseball team, just like all ten weekends (of the SEC season) are going to be good baseball teams. The opportunity exceeds the challenges we have.”
This experienced team has the potential to get Tennessee baseball back on the map in the Southeastern Conference. Here’s why:
Deepest Pitching Staff in Years: Dave Serrano says that this pitching staff is “easily the strongest and deepest pitching staff we’ve had.” Zach Warren, the ace, has been the star of the rotation. The sophomore was the mid-week starter last season, but missed a lot of starts due to numerous rain cancellations. The 6-foot-5 lefty has won all four of his starts, posting a 1.59 ERA while striking out 22 batters. Dave Serrano announced on Thursday at the Tennessee Baseball Luncheon that Warren will play for Team USA this summer.
Senior Andy Cox began the season as the first pitcher in the rotation. The lefty has gotten the win in two out of his three starts, but has an 8.31 ERA. Cox is a guy that can start, come out of the bullpen or close out the game for the Vols. His versatility adds much needed depth to the Tennessee rotation. Junior Hunter Martin rounds out the weekend rotation, replacing Kyle Serrano who will miss this season with an elbow ligament injury. Freshman Daniel Vazquez will handle the midweek pitching duties.
Serrano admits that he is not “an easy guy to pitch for because his expectations are so high.” So far this season the Tennessee pitchers have met his lofty expectations. “We still have more strides to take, but I’ve seen big strides, and we’ve got to continue to grow up as a pitching staff,” Serrano said. The bookends of the pitching staff have been sensational. Zach Warren, who was announced as the Friday starter for the rest of the season, is tied for first in the SEC with four wins. Closer Jon Lipinski is tied for fourth in the conference with three saves.
Efficient Hitting: Dave Serrano told reporters in his media session on Thursday that he, “likes the continuity of the lineup” despite leadoff hitter Jeff Moberg sustaining an ACL injury on Tuesday that will end his season.
“I think what we are going to do is just move everybody up a slot…so we keep that continuity,” Serrano said. “The style we play dictates (more freedom at the plate). I think our guys are appreciative that we’re not taking away an at-bat from them as much anymore. We’ll bunt in the 8th and 9th because I believe in that, but we’re letting their skills take over a little bit more.”
The system is in place for this team to play Serrano baseball. Coming from the West Coast, the Tennessee skipper implemented a small-ball philosophy to the lineup, but has modified it a bit this season, letting his hitters swing away more. In this his fifth season as head coach, the personnel on this team have all been recruited by Serrano.
From here on out, the pitching Tennessee sees will be elite. Serrano said, “the mistakes are limited.” He explained, “What we’re doing has worked for the most part, and we’ve played a good schedule. We’ve just got to do what we do.” The statistics agree. Jordan Rodgers leads the NCAA with 31 RBIs, hitting in 1.94 runs per game, which also leads the country. New leadoff hitter Chris Hall is seventh in the SEC with .404 batting average.
Senzel-sational: With Moberg out for the year, Dave Serrano explained that while Senzel is not a typical “two-hole hitter,” batting second in the order could give him some extra at-bats. Senzel is the leader of this lineup, ranking seventh in the NCAA in runs scored (23) and third in the SEC in RBIs (25). He is the kind of contact hitter who finds ways to get on base, whether that is with his speed or plate discipline.
An elite pro prospect, Senzel’s patience at the plate makes him a tough out. The Farragut native has been struck out just six times in 57 at bats this season, drawing 18 walks. Senzel is dangerous on the base paths as well, stealing nine stolen bases this year, which ranks sixth in the SEC. With Jordan Rodgers’ added confidence and success behind Senzel, the Junior will have many chances to score some big runs for the Vols this season.
Defensive Consistency: Tennessee’s losses have come as a product of poor defense. In five of their six losses, Tennessee committed at least two errors, resulting in unearned runs that made the difference in the game. There is a sense among the team that Tennessee gave away games they were capable of winning due to sloppy defensive play.
Serrano said that Derek Lance will take over for Moberg at Second Base. “There are a lot of different things than just sticking a guy out there,” Serrano said. “He played it in high school and is a good athlete, and I think will do a good job.” Behind a solidified pitching staff, sound defensive play will make the difference for a Tennessee team looking to get over the hump and become relevant again in the SEC.
The Vols open up its season against Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. LHP Zach Warren (4-0, 1.59) will face off with RHP Brady Bramlett (4-0, 2.14).