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No. 20 Devils top UT, take series

Tennessee probably didn’t mind Trever Allen getting on a plane Sunday night and leaving Knoxville.

Sophomore third baseman Will Maddox slides into second base for a double during UT's 5-1 loss to No. 20 Arizona State on Sunday in Knoxville. The visiting Sun Devils won the weekend series in Lindsey Nelson Stadium with Sunday's win. (UT photo)

Arizona State’s sophomore right fielder hit his second two-run home run of the weekend and scored an insurance later in the 20th-ranked Sun Devils’ 5-1 win over the Vols on Sunday afternoon in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

The visiting Sun Devils (4-2) bounced back from an 11-2 loss to the young Vols (2-5) on Saturday and took the weekend series — which, thanks to Sunday’s crowd of 2,355, was the best attended home-opening weekend series in program history.

Allen also hit a two-run shot to push ASU to a 4-0 win in Friday night’s series opener, but Serrano and UT sophomore third baseman Will Maddox insisted both blasts came on good pitches.

“The difference in this series was that seven of (ASU’s) 11 runs came on three swings — a three-run home run Friday night that I thought was a good pitch by Zack Godley, and two two-run home runs today that I thought Andy Cox spotted up right where he was supposed to, and they put good swings on ‘em,” second-year Vols coach Dave Serrano said. “Today we punched out 10 times — which is something we need to improve on — and they, in those two (home run) at-bats, saw 10 pitches and nine pitches. We’re not there as pitching staff, stuff-wise, for a hitter to see that many pitches and us have success.

“You walk away from this, and I don’t think we’re far away. We lost the series, bottom line. But we’re not that far off from where I believe that we’re gonna be very soon — and sooner than later, to be honest with you.”

Sunday’s offensive performance was certainly frustrating for Serrano and his players, though.

After putting up double digits without a single extra-base hit Saturday, UT spoiled three doubles in Sunday’s finale and lost an early lead against ASU starting pitcher Ryan Kellogg, a 6-foot-5 left-hander from Canada who mixed his pitches well and worked himself out of a few tough spots in five efficient innings.

Kellogg allowed just three hits and one earned run, striking out six without walking a single Vol.

UT freshman shortstop A.J. Simcox (UT photo)

“That’s just baseball,” said Maddox, UT’s leadoff hitter. “We hit the ball well yesterday, but mostly we were just able to get on base with walks and hit-by-pitches. And today we weren’t able to do that, so the doubles didn’t do much. A lot of the doubles were with two outs.

“And yeah, way too many strikeouts today. Way too many. We’ve got to find a way to battle with two strikes.”

Serrano and Maddox complimented ASU’s pitching staff, but the third baseman said nothing excused the Vols putting up just one combined run on Friday and Sunday.

“I just look at what we can do,” Maddox said. “We could have hit (Kellogg). I mean, I thought we hit him pretty well. We just weren’t able to get runs across. We hit him hard, but as a whole we weren’t attacking his fastball good enough.”

Freshman left-hander Andy Cox from Memphis wasn’t bad for the Vols in his second college start, but Allen and ASU junior second baseman James McDonald made him pay with a couple of great at-bats that ended with two-run homers — Allen’s in the fourth to give the Devils a 2-1 lead, and McDonald’s in the fifth to pad that cushion to 4-1.

McDonald’s blast sent Cox to the dugout after 4 1/3 innings, but the freshman wasn’t bad. He allowed six hits and four earned runs, but he struck out four, walked just one and threw just 78 pitches.

“The first three innings, I was pounding the string like Coach Serrano says to,” Cox said. “I was just focusing on hitting those knees, but that guy, Trever Allen, had a 10-pitch at-bat and got me. Coach called an inside fastball, and I hit the spot, but he just saw too many pitches and put a good swing on it. The (McDonald) hit another good inside fastball. He just put another good swing on it.

“I mean, I’m kind of disappointed in myself, ‘cause I’m just a competitor and I hate losing, but I keep progressing and keep getting better. I have to work on a couple of things, but overall I’m pretty pleased with what I did — especially against a great team like that. I mean, I’ve never faced as many great hitters like that before.

UT freshman pitcher Andy Cox (UT photo)

“You know, as a freshman, going against that is pretty nerve-racking.”

Allen kept pestering the Vols in the sixth despite keeping the ball in the infield. He led off with an infield single, stole second, advanced to third on a flyout to center field and then scored on a wild pitch UT freshman reliever Trevor Bettencourt.

That single and passed ball were probably the only mistakes all day from Bettencourt —one of several true freshmen from California on UT’s roster. The 6-foot-1 right-hander faced just 12 batters in 3 2/3 innings, and Allen’s single was the only hit he allowed.

“I think the pitching it starting to become a little bit more clear for me,” Serrano said. “I don’t like that we only threw (closer) Nick Williams one inning, and when we were down 5-1. We need to get him the ball more. But I thought Drake Owenby threw the ball well yesterday. (Aaron) Quillen didn’t throw bad yesterday, but I just didn’t like the at-bats they were taking off of him. I thought they were seeing the ball really well off him. And Trevor Bettencourt had another good outing today out of the bullpen. And (Trevor) Charpie was good on Friday night, too.

“I’m liking how some of that stuff is coming together on the mound. ...I’m excited with where we’re at with that.”

UT’s offense didn’t perform quite as well Sunday, though.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on freshman right fielder Christin Stewart’s RBI single, the Vols left squandered a few chances to push across more runs.

UT’s best chance came in the ninth. The Vols loaded the bases on three consecutive two-out walks by ASU closer Matt Dunbar, but the big lefty locked in and struck out UT pinch-hitter Jeff Moberg to end the game.

UT baseball coach Dave Serrano (UT photo)

Serrano defended his decision to replace the powerful, left-handed-hitting Jackson with the scrappy, right-handed-hitting Moberg, saying he went by the book with a left-handed closer on the mound.

“It’s that percentage deal,” Serrano said. “Vincent could hit a ball over the fence, and Moberg could have hit a ball down the line or into the gap. You play the percentages. I don’t regret doing that. I think it’s the right move, and we went with it.

“We can’t second-guess ourselves. We’ve got to go with what we think’s gonna work at that time.”

UT plays its first midweek game of the season at 3 p.m. EST on Tuesday against East Tennessee State in Lindey Nelson, and the Vols will then face another tough weekend test against a good field at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic in Cary, N.C. UT will play Notre Dame at 6:30 p.m. EST on Friday, UMass at 3 p.m. EST on Saturday and Virginia Tech at noon EST on Sunday.

Serrano said he’s not pleased with UT’s 2-5 start, and he doesn’t expect fans to be pleased with it, either. But the coach said the Vols are playing better than this time last season, when a lesser-talented team won its first seven games against a much softer schedule.

“I feel more confident about where we’re at right now and where we’re going than I felt last year when we were 7-0,” Serrano said. “That’s nothing (against) last year’s team, but I know where the upside is with these guys, and I know what I’ve done with this schedule to battle-test them. I don’t feel good about 2-5. I don’t like 2-5. But I know what we need to do more than ever to fix things so we can come out on top.

“If we’d have played (worse teams) and we were 7-0 right now, a lot of things would get brushed under the rug.”

Maddox, the lone everyday starter in the field from last season to retain his spot with the current team, said Serrano was right.

UT junior closer Nick Williams (UT photo)

“This is a lot better team. A lot better team, for sure,” Maddox said. “We’ve played better teams to start off this year, which is gonna make us better in the long run. We’ve had some tough losses, but it’s gonna make us a lot better in the future.”

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