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February 28, 2012

Historic start comes up one game short

The season just eight games old, Zach Luther nonetheless had seen enough of his Tennessee teammates to believe they were poised to continue their improbable run.

Down to their last out and trailing visiting MTSU 4-2 before 1,784 fans inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the Vols seemed out of magic. They weren't when Luther dislodged the ball --- and the glove--- from MTSU first baseman Ethan Williams and forced extra innings.

"I was just busting my (rear) down the line. I saw him come up and I was thinking maybe I'd slide to the outside," said Luther, the Vols' third baseman and leadoff hitter. "But it was kind of a hard check, and I just thought I'm not going to be an easy out. Luckily, I hit him in the right spot and his glove went flying. I was pretty fortunate. We got pretty lucky there, but I'm not going to quit.

"After that happened, I was like 'We find ways to get back in the game and anything can happen.' I've seen some crazy ones. Bloopers, great two-strike at-bats. It just shows that our team doesn't quit. We're going to need that later in the SEC for sure."

An inning later, however, the second-best start in the program's more than 100-year history had been subdued. The Blue Raiders (5-3) got a two-out single up the middle from light-hitting Ryan Stephens --- he had a .115 average stepping to the plate --- that scored Johnny Thomas with what proved to be the game-winning run in the 5-4 win.

MTSU then watched previously injured hurler Daniel Palo knife through the core of the Vols' lineup with three strikeouts to preserve the 10-inning win.

"I've said that during this whole streak, that we've overcome ourselves," said first-year coach Dave Serrano, who saw his UT team have four runners erased at second base and commit another costly error. "This game is a strange game, and we knew going into this, this coaching staff tried to prepare our team for what was ahead of us, going to Houston. We were 7-0, feeling really good about ourselves and it's a midweek game at 4 o'clock. Middle Tennessee. In-state team. We knew it was going to be a game that we needed to come out and play our best game of the year, and we didn't. It caught up to us."

Still, as the Vols (7-1) prepare for a far more telling weekend in Houston at the Houston College Classic against the host Cougars, Rice and Texas, Serrano lodged complaints with his team's execution but not its effort.

"I don't like to think that," Serrano said when asked if this loss might make it easier to educate his team. "I hate that cliché, that 'OK now that you lose we have your attention.' But I think that will be the case. I saw 30-plus guys in that locker room that it was stinging a little bit. And that was a good thing to me. Losing will never be accepted in this program anymore. I don't care who it's against. I want losing to hurt. I want them to hate losing more than they like winning."

Gritty shortstop Zach Osborne didn't mince words when he assessed the Vols' first loss since opening with seven-straight wins against Northern Illinois (3), Seton Hall (3) and Western Kentucky.

"Losing sucks. It does," said Osborne, a team leader who admitted he thought the Vols would again rally after the bizarre ninth-inning comeback. "Especially to an in-state team, kind of a rival I guess. Those are games we should win, definitely. We came out, I guess, flat or not ready to take it pitch by pitch. We didn't execute a lot of the plays and it caught up to us.

"It's definitely something you want to learn from. You want to go home and let it sting a little bit tonight and tomorrow just forget about it and look forward to the series. It's going to hurt. Let it hurt, I guess, but forget about it and move forward."

To move forward against much stuffer competition and with SEC play creeping up on the schedule, Serrano said, Tennessee must absorb more of the staff's teachings.

"We'll try to find out. Sometimes it's guys racing a little bit too much in those situations. Sometimes they may not be seeing the signs," Serrano said. "I said to them and I explained to them in there. I give a lot of credit to my coaching staff. I've got a brilliant coaching staff that is continually trying to educate these guys on a daily, minute-by-minute basis.

"If you sat in our dugout during a game, it's like Baseball 101. We're talking situations. My assistants are talking through things. It's the attention to detail that they've got to start picking up to. Because they're not retaining the information and locking it in there."

On Tuesday, the Vols learned a painful lesson.


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