Vols show toughness in weekend sweep
Nick Blount picked up his fifth save in six days, Drew Steckenrider woke up ready to finish what he started and the Vols finished the first three-game sweep of Alabama in Knoxville for the first time in 115 years Sunday. Tennessee extended its longest win streak over the Tide to five with the 4-2 win in the resumption of Saturday's rain suspended Game 2 and followed it with a 5-3 victory in the finale.
"I think because nothing has come easy for this team, this team is starting to gain some mental toughness to find ways to get through the tough times of a baseball game," coach Dave Serrano said in summing up the Vols first SEC home sweep in four years and Serrano's first conference sweep as UT's skipper.
Zach Osborne's rip to left over the outstretched arm of Alabama shortstop Jared Reaves in the sixth brought in Chris Fritts and pinch runner Nick Powell for the go-ahead runs after Alabama (9-19, 1-8 SEC) had knotted the game with a three-run fourth.
"I was looking fastball early and once I had two strikes I was just trying to battle and put a good swing on it and make some good things happen. As a hitter it is always tough on a 0-2, they're way ahead and can throw you a curve ball at any time," Osborne said. "They came back and punched us with three runs. It was an obstacle we had to overcome and we did.
"It was huge for us and our program (to get the sweep). It's something we can build off of and keep the ball rolling."
Blount earned his second save of the day and fifth of the week throwing 11 pitches in the seventh and final frame of the finale - shortened by SEC rule regarding resumption of suspended play - to complete a shutout series by the Volunteer bullpen which threw 11 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.
"Coach told me that I'd get the ball at the end of the game as much as possible," Blount said. "I didn't have problem with it from the get-go, it wasn't really difficult to get used to because I'd thrown out of the bullpen as a freshman and sophomore. I enjoy it, think it's fun. I don't really feel any pressure. I just go out and throw strikes."
It was another solid outing from the junior but one his coach didn't witness after Serrano was ejected in the fourth inning from a meeting on the mound held with starter Mick Williams and the infield after home plate umpire Todd Henderson cast a warning finger to the home dugout.
"Obviously the home plate and I had a disagreement on some of the pitches. I have my opinion. He had his opinion. I didn't curse at him. He warned me to be quiet but I thought it was a big situation right there," Serrano said. "I thought there were two teams clawing and fighting in a seven inning game. We're going for the sweep. They were trying to not get swept and I didn't want it in anyone else's hands except for the players."
Williams came out three batters later for Carter Watson (3-0) who picked up his second win of the week working 2 1/3 as UT extended its win streak to five. Tennessee (18-10, 5-4) continued the roll that started at noon by Steckenrider's return to the mound in the conclusion of Saturday's suspended game. The versatile pitching outfielder worked through the eighth before handing the ball over to Blount for the save and keeping the bullpen in good shape for Game 3.
"We were talking about it last night wondering if coach was going to give him the ball back," said roommate Blount. "Today when we got here he told him he was and I was excited about it."
The junior struck out four and walked one over 3 2/3 innings that stretched from Saturday to Sunday with the delay, throwing 23 pitches before the rain suspension and 44 more Sunday to get through the last two frames.
"It wasn't my choice. It was me going to him, saying 'how do you feel?'" Serrano said. "He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I feel good.' We went with it and he proved that. I thought his stuff was just as good today as it was yesterday."
Steckenrider's stuff got even better starting the final game as the designated hitter as the junior crushed a first pitch home run off the scoreboard to put Tennessee up 2-0 in the first inning.
"Drew had that big at-bat where he smoked that ball of the scoreboard in the first inning," Serrano said of UT's improved hitting during the last week. "If we can get some guys around him to continue to get some good at-bats its going to make our offense a lot more fun."
The Vols host Memphis Wednesday night before spending the Easter weekend at No. 14 South Carolina. No. 1 Florida visits Knoxville the following weekend.
"It wasn't an easy week by any stretch of the imagination, but we came out 5-0. More importantly, we were 3-0 in the SEC this weekend. We get above .500 and we are 5-4 (in the SEC) which puts us in the hunt, but we have a long way to go," Serrano said. "We are nine games into a 30-game schedule in the SEC, but I am proud of how we have continued to overcome adversity and weather and find a way to get it done."
Tennessee hasn't swept an SEC series at home since 2008 when UT took three from LSU over March 15-17 of that year. The Vols last SEC sweep came in 2010 at Georgia. It's understandable then that the memory might be a little hazy for some of the players when asked to reflect on the last time.
"Did we actually sweep anybody when I was a freshman?" Blount semi-joked after the game. "I don't even remember that."
Nick Williams scoreless streak as a starter ended at 13 2/3 innings Sunday on Reaves home run. ... Powell's experience as a pinch-runner got the freshman from Cordova his first stolen base as he took second after subbing for Davis Morgan ... Morgan finished 3-for-3 in the second game after going 0-for-5 in Game 1. ... Blount went three innings against the Tide throwing 46 pitches. The junior worked 3 1/3 and threw 46 pitches to get a pair of midweek saves over Mississippi valley State. ... The 1994 Vols are the only other UT team to sweep Alabama taking three in Tuscaloosa. ... The Vols have swept the Tide 2-of-4 times that UT's won the first game (1994, 2012) going 2-1 in 1988 in Knoxville and 1-2 in 1900.