The Diamond Vols (17-11, 3-6 SEC) dropped their third consecutive conference series on Sunday, losing the rubber match against Kentucky (20-8, 6-3 SEC) by a final of 10-2.
Dave Serrano said that Andy Cox had his best start of the season, but that this one was a “tale of two games.” For the Vols it was the same story. After a solid starting pitching performance, the bullpen couldn’t do enough to win the game.
Cox threw 21 pitches in the first inning, recording three strikeouts and allowing just one hit. Kentucky got on the board in the second inning when catcher Troy Squires doubled down the right field wall with two outs. Cox had already thrown 39 pitches after the second inning.
The Wildcats tagged Cox for another run in the fourth when Cox walked Storm Wilson with the bases loaded to bring in the third run of the game. UT would answer in the bottom half of the inning. Jordan Rodgers picked up his 48th RBI of the season on a SAC fly to left, scoring Nick Senzel after his leadoff double.
Andy Cox had thrown 79 pitches when he entered the fifth inning, but managed to retire 10 straight Kentucky batters between the fifth and eighth innings. Cox finished the day with 120 pitches, but said that his fatigue helped his mental approach on the mound.
“When I started getting the pitch count higher I started pitching better,” Cox said after the game. “I stopped trying to overthrow. I knew I’d have to force contact early and just get outs.”
Following a double and a single with one out in the eighth, Jon Lipinski entered the game to pitch with two men on. Lipinski gave up two straight singles, and after a Benito Santiago error in right field, Kentucky scored four runs in the top of the eighth.
Daniel Vazquez came on to pitch in the ninth, but never recorded an out, giving up two hits and two earned runs on 15 pitches. Freshman Alex Harper-Cook had another solid outing, giving up just one hit and striking out two in an inning of work in the ninth.
For Serrano, the bullpen’s struggles continue to be a major storyline. UT’s relief pitchers gave up eight earned runs against the Wildcats. When asked about the bullpen, Serrano said that he’s trying to find a better mentality.
“Answers are hard to find,” he said after game three. “You never know what you’re going to get out of each guy. There’s no consistency. The confidence level isn’t very high, but you’ve got to get over that. We’ve got to find two or three guys that this team can find confidence behind. The mid week is an audition. Guys are going to have to step up.”
Serrano added that Maryville native Alex Harper-Cook has “stepped up,” adding that Harper-Cook will start on Wednesday against Morehead State.
Starting pitcher Andy Cox felt more confidence on the mound Sunday after finding more success later on in the game.
“Early on I was getting too amped up and leaving pitches up,” Cox said. “From the fifth inning on I was just pitching, I wasn’t worried about trying to strike guys out, which I think has been the problem. I just let them hit the ball and (the defense) made plays and put up zeros.”
Offensively, Sunday was a rough ending to a solid series at the plate. Tennessee managed six hits, going 0-for-8 with two outs. Serrano placed much of the blame on his team’s performance at the plate, despite giving up 10 runs on the mound.
“I don’t want to pen this all on (the bullpen),” Serrano said. “We got six hits today. As a lineup it felt like we were at a screeching halt. I just thought our swings got big, and that wasn’t what we’ve been doing lately.”
This was the second time that Tennessee won game one against an SEC opponent, only to lose games two and three to drop the series. Serrano mentioned after the Ole Miss series that his team’s “personality” changed after winning game one, but didn’t feel that was the case against Kentucky.
“I just didn’t think we played good offensive baseball today as a team,” Serrano added. “We didn’t do what we need to do, and that’s where our frustration lies. One and two (wins) just isn’t good enough. Winning one game and feeling good about it is unacceptable. Not in my program and it never will be.”
The Vols will host Morehead State on Wednesday before traveling to No. 5 South Carolina next weekend.
“It’s a long season,” Andy Cox added after the game. “There’s a lot of baseball left, all it takes is one weekend of confidence. There’s seven series left, we’re fine.”