Nick Williams had watched a seemingly comfortable three-run lead dwindle to one, with no outs and the bases loaded when Tennessee coach Dave Serrano strode purposefully to the mound.
Serrano talked. Williams listened. And three batters and one sparkling defensive play later, the Vols won, 9-7, over a Ball State team that taxed five Vols' pitchers for 13 hits.
"That's why I went out to the mound, because his body language when he gave up a couple of hits kind of bothered me a little bit. I don't want our guys to want to give up hits, but in Nick's role, that's what his job is," said Serrano, who improved to 9-3 in his first season at UT. "To come in with a three-run lead and pound the strike zone. And if someone makes him pay with a hit, I just wanted him to get back on his own side. In fact, I took the blame for it. I made some bad decisions on calls I made. They stung the ball and put it in play and made us pay for it a little bit.
"I don't want to discount what Ethan Bennett did behind the plate, too, because it allowed Nick to throw some really nasty pitches."
Still, Bennett's blocks at the plate and Williams' back-to-back strikeouts following Serrano's visit might have been squandered if not for scrappy second baseman Will Maddox. He ranged to his left on Cody Campbell's sharply rapped grounder, gloved the ball and fired to Parker Wormsley at first to clinch the win. The play preserved Williams' third save and made a winner of Robbie Kidd, who improved to 2-0 with 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
"It's big. It's big knowing that with bases loaded you can just overcome what you've put yourself into at the beginning and overcome and just make the pitches you need to make to help the team get the win," Williams said. "That was huge. Will's that hard-nosed player, always out here taking extra ground balls before practice and during b.p. and all that stuff. He's quick off the ball. He's good at reading the ground balls and I knew when it was hit, he was going to make the play."
The only pitcher Ball State (2-7) didn't notch a hit against was Tennessee's Drew Steckenrider, who opened as the team's designated hitter. The Vols' opening day starter waxed five Cardinals hitters in two frames, throwing 20 of 25 pitches for strikes.
"I think just my mentality, coming out the bullpen, kind of that closer mentality that you want to have coming into a game late, kind of a close game, been a high-scoring game" said the junior switch-hitter who throws right-handed. "Just that mentality coming in from the bullpen throwing strikes, blowing stuff by people and having location with the off-speed stuff.
"I definitely felt like I was really comfortable out there; probably the best I've felt this season. And I'm going to try to take that mentality into this weekend."
Serrano, who will start surging Zack Godley (2-0, 2.12) and Nick Blount (2-1, 4.08) on Friday and Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe, said he wants to see more of the Steckenrider who fanned five and didn't allow a baserunner.
"I just said in there in the locker room, I sure would love to see that Drew Steckenrider each and every time because that was pretty special," Serrano said. "I don't know what the readings were (on the radar gun); it doesn't matter what the readings were. I know he was coming in and throwing the fastball by a lot of guys and he was really, really special. Not only that, but at the plate, too."
After he had narrowly missed a home run that resulted in a double earlier in the game, Steckenrider provided what proved to be the decisive runs with a no-doubt blast near the light pole in left-center field in the sixth inning.
Well, no doubt perhaps to everyone but Steckenrider.
"I hit a changeup, saw it up and picked up the spin on it pretty early," Steckenrider said. "I guess I got a good enough piece of it to send it over the wall. It stayed down and I was going around first and I was like 'Oh, crap. I better start turning it on and get to second.'
"I just got a quick glance of it and saw that it stayed pretty low. I didn't watch the whole way and just started running to first. Decided I better pick it up. Then I saw the umpires waving me around."
The Cardinals threatened to rally in the ninth with four-straight hits off Williams, who entered with a 1.46 ERA in five appearances. Blake Beemer, who reached base all five trips to the plate and finished 3-for-3, followed up a leadoff double and T.J. Weir's single scored the game's final run.
But Williams fanned Kevin Schlotter looking on a full count and dismissed Billy Wellman on three pitches before Maddox speared Campbell's shot to close out the Vols' eighth home win in nine tries.
"Unbelievable," Serrano said of the defensive saver. "It comes down to a ball stung. I had told the team before the game, teams come in here and want a piece of you. It makes their season to come into an arena like this and place well. But Maddox saved our life at the end of the game. We didn't have a hiccup defensively and the good defense throughout the game helped us preserve that win."
The Vols are scheduled to host Monroe beginning Friday at 6 p.m. Saturday is slated for a 4 p.m. first pitch and Sunday's series finale is set for 2 p.m. UT then hosts Tennessee Tech on Tuesday at 7 p.m. before opening SEC play on the road St. Patrick's Day weekend at Georgia.