Down just 3-0 in the sixth inning Tuesday night to visiting Tennessee Tech, and plenty of chances left Tennessee coach Dave Serrano nonetheless didn't like the body language of his team.
His feelings were punctuated when the Golden Eagles, who earlier this season lost 28-2 to Illinois State, finished off a 5-1 win against the Vols (10-6), who have lost three straight as Southeastern Conference play looms this weekend.
"The frustration is mounting. It definitely is within the coaching staff, and I'm sure it is in the players' faces," said Serrano, who has been stuck on 299 career wins since UT's three-game skid began Saturday. "When I went out to take out (Dalton) Saberhagen, the look on the face when the score was 3-0 was like it was 13-0, and that bothered me a lot. Because in a midweek game, if we don't have the mentality to recover from 3-0 then we don't deserve to wear the uniforms.
"Again, I'll take full responsibility. We have got to find another gear to compete at. We knew it wasn't going to be easy. It's never going to be easy. And I think we're backing down to the toughness now. When it gets tough, we're backing down and that really has bothered me and my coaching staff tremendously."
Junior Drew Steckenrider, who has continued to flourish in his new role as a reliever but struggled through an 0-for-4, three-strikeout effort as the team's cleanup hitter, said the Vols weren't sharp from the outset. Tech starter Seth Lucio, who had thrown just 7.2 innings all year, blanked the Vols into the ninth and allowed just five hits and one earned run. Ben Burgess finished off what was just Tech's fifth win in its last 15 games.
"Yeah, I feel like we didn't really come out to play. Guys weren't really on it from the get-go in batting practice. Just a lack of focus all around, I felt," said the hard-throwing switch-hitter and right-handed pitcher. "No one said anything about it before the game. No other coaches. I don't know if it was any one particular person. Just kind of that attitude coming off an off day, it's difficult. You've got to have that focus and drive, especially after an off day."
What most bothered Serrano about his team is that he felt his players perhaps continued to show some selfish tendencies in losing their last three games. The Vols travel to powerful Georgia on Friday for a three-game set that initiates Serrano's foray into the SEC.
"I don't know if that's it for sure. I've seen since we've hit this skid, it's become about the results of their at-bats, and I don't like that feeling," said Serrano, acknowledging some lingering frustration. "Because this is a team sport and we need to grind. We got out-grinded tonight, and that really bothers me. We got out-grinded by Tennessee Tech, and nothing against Tennessee Tech. Their mentality was better than us.
"There's a lot of different things that are going through my head tonight. Sleep on that tonight and come to a decision with my coaching staff, what's the best direction to go with this team. But we definitely have to make this turnaround and head in a different direction. We've got a long road ahead of us. The SEC is upon us now."
Steckenrider said he expects the team to bounce back at practice on Wednesday, noting the Vols' offense must be more selective. Tennessee struck at 12 times as a team, including an dismal 0-for-12, eight-strikeout showing from the team's 3-4-5 hitters.
"I imagine we're going to have a good practice and get stuff worked out that we didn't do right tonight," he said. "Definitely got to reduce the strikeouts. That's probably one of the biggest things for us tonight. Struck out way too many times as a team. Maybe get that fixed and get some more runs up on the board and help our pitching staff out and then once we're pitching with a lead, our guys will be more comfortable and able to stay in the game longer."
Leadoff hitter Will Maddox, who tallied three of the team's six hits, said the Vols must better compete from first pitch to last out. Freshman Jared Allen, who singled and reached base three times, also was praised by Serrano.
"Yeah, I just felt like we came out, they jumped up on us and we leveled out. I think we need to compete for nine innings, and we didn't do that tonight," said Maddox, a freshman from Gainesville, Ga., who owns an eight-game hitting streak. "We got down, the team got flat and we didn't compete the whole game.
"The coaches have done everything in their power. They've got us ready to play, and if we go out there and play the game that we can play, we can beat anybody. Right now, we're just not doing that. As a team, we just need to come together and trust each other, play hard, play harder than the other team that day. That's all we can do."