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Vols win weekend Mizzou series

The adrenaline surge of a walk-off win didn’t do much for Tennessee’s baseball team Saturday in Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Teammates mob UT center fielder Pierce Bily after his walk-off single against Missouri on Saturday in Knoxville. (UT photo)

The Vols split two Saturday games with Missouri and still took the weekend series, but first-year UT coach Dave Serrano was disappointed that the rush of momentum from a 7-6, walk-off win in Game One wasn’t duplicated in a 14-6 loss in Game Two.

“If we would have gotten blown out in the first game of the doubleheader and then left ‘em on the field in the second game, we wouldn’t be saying it’s a disappointing feeling,” UT’s second-year coach said. “We’d be pretty elated that we won the series. I’m not sugarcoating anything, ‘cause that was an absolute massacre (in Game Two) from their offensive standpoint to our pitching staff, but we won the series, and we took a step forward.”

Conference-series wins haven’t been the norm for (Tennessee 13-10, 3-3 SEC) the past few years, though. So while Serrano and his players certainly wanted to sweep Mizzou (8-12, 2-4) and have a winning record after two weeks in league play, they kept an optimistic vibe in postgame meetings and media interviews.

“We’re 3-3 (in the SEC),” Serrano said. “We’re not proud of that. But, you know, if you look at the standings, everyone’s about the same.”

Junior first baseman Scott Price agreed with his coach, saying Saturday was a mixed bag of sorts.

“You win the first two games of the series, and obviously you want to win the third,” Price said. “But this is a step we’re taking in this program. It’s two out of three. It’s an SEC series victory. It’s something we’re proud of.

“The program’s going in the right direction. It’s a step above where we were last weekend (at Alabama). It’s two out of three, not one out of three or zero out of three, so it’s a step forward, and it’s something we can build on now, and it’s something we can progress with.”

Junior center fielder Pierce Bily said he also saw the big picture, and that it’s tough to feel too down after winning an SEC series.

UT junior first baseman Scott Price (UT photo)

“It was a great weekend — first SEC series that we won, so we’re pretty pumped about it,” Bily said. “Too bad it ended the way it did, but we have to look at the positives. And we won two of the three games, so that’s good. We’re a little upset about how it ended, but Coach Serrano’s trying to harp on the positives, even though we didn’t play the second game today.

“We just have to look at the positives right now, and we won two out of three.”

Saturday started a lot better than it ended for the Vols, and Bily and Price had plenty to do with that.

Despite out-hitting the Tigers 13-8 heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Vols trailed 6-5 after squandering several good chances to rack up runs.

The ninth was different, though.

Junior second baseman Jeff Moberg led off the inning with a sharp single to left field, was promptly balked to second and then held at third after junior first baseman Scott Price’s single to center field. Moberg scored moments later, though, when sophomore Parker Wormsley — who had just recently the game as a defensive substitution — dropped a solid, safety-squeeze bunt just to the first-base side of the pitcher’s mound, forcing Missouri closer Brecklin Williams to toss the ball to first.

Price advanced to second on Wormsley’s bunt and then scored with ease on junior Bily’s shot into the left center field gap. Bily would have had a double in a normal situation but eased around first base before Price crossed the plate to end the game.

“It was a curveball,” Bily said. “The pitch before was the exact same pitch, so I kind of felt like it was coming again, so I just sat back on it and drove it in the gap. It was a pretty good feeling.”

UT freshman closer Drake Owenby (UT photo)

Freshman left-hander Drake Owenby— the recently promoted closer in UT’s new-look pitching-staff shuffle — surrendered a go-ahead run to Missouri in the top of the ninth but limited the damage from there and earned a good-break win, running his record to 2-0 this season.

Two more UT freshman pitchers — right-handers Aaron Quillen and Trevor Charpie — combined for 3 2/3 innings of solid relief in the bridging the gap to Owenby, allowing two hits and two runs to keep the Vols in the game.

Freshman left fielder Vincent Jackson said wins like Saturday’s Game One — when you fall in an early hole and fight back, overcoming many mistakes along the way — are “the best kind” of wins.

“That’s the great thing about baseball,” Jackson said. “You don’t know what could happen. Anything could happen. You could win a game when you’re not playing too good, or you could play your hearts out and lose a 3-2 game. That’s why you love baseball, I guess.”

UT probably didn’t expect to go to the bullpen so early, but junior Nick Williams’ return to the starting rotation in SEC play didn’t go that well. Williams, a junior who has bounced from the starting rotation to the closer’s role the past two seasons, allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits over 4 1/3 innings.

Williams worked his way out of several jams without his best stuff — he has a 2.84 earned-run average for a reason — but needed 85 pitches to record 13 outs and was pulled after allowing two Tigers to reach base in the fifth.

Bily’s big hit won Saturday’s first game for UT, but Price and Jackson pushed the Vols to that point.

Jackson, an athletic, 6-foot-5 freshman with plenty of pop from the left side of the plate, was 4-of-4 with two RBIs in Game One, and the first home run of his college career — a powerful, two-run blast that had just started descending when it smacked into the right field scoreboard — pulled the Vols within 3-2 in the fourth.

UT baseball coach Dave Serrano (UT photo)

“I’m starting to get kind of back in my groove, like how I know I am,” said Jackson, whose batting average briefly topped the .300 mark after Saturday’s first game. “I’m just waiting for my pitch, not going after the pitcher’s pitch, not dwelling on anything. I’m just kind of taking one at-bat at time, and that’s what I did today. I did what I had to do for my team and just helped the first one today.

“I was just looking for first-pitch fastball (on the home-run at-bat); simple as that. Me and my dad, we always talk about that first-pitch fastball — ‘cause, you know, D-I college, that’s probably the best pitch you’re gonna get. That’s how I got the home run. Good things happen when you do that.

“You’ve got to get that mentality that you think you’re better than any pitcher you play against. Once you get that, good things start happening.”

Price, whose slick, left-handed swing has been penciled into the 3-hole all season, was 4-of-5 in Game One.

He also was of the few Vols who stayed hot in Game Two, hitting a three-run homer over the left center field wall in the fifth.

“I’m just seeing the ball well right now,” Price said. “I got some pitches to hit today. Fortunately for me, a lot of the counts I was in, I got count leverage. They got behind early and came in with fastballs, and I just happened to put some good swings on ‘em.”

Price, a 6-3, 215-pound South Carolina native who starred last season for USC Sumter Junior College, said he’s also “fortunate” that JUCO ball prepared him to come in and produce immediately. He’s hitting .370 with a .442 on-base percentage.

“Junior-college ball is definitely nothing to slouch at, ‘cause I can tell it’s an easier transition into the D-I level,” he said. “But there’s no ball anywhere like the SEC. It’s coming right back at you, and you’ve got to come right back at them.”

UT freshman OF Vincent Jackson (UT photo)

Aside from a couple of home runs, though, the rest of Game Two went more than a bit badly for UT.

Freshman right-hander Trevor Bettencourt — who was a reliever until the Vols shuffled the pitching staff — was pulled after surrendering six earned runs on five hits and three hit batters in just 2 1/3 innings. Sophomore right-hander allowed three earned runs on three hits in just 2/3 of an inning, and freshman right-hander Matt Esparza allowed five earned runs on seven hits in just 2 2/3 innings.

“We need to get better on the mound,” Serrano said. “We’re not good enough on the mound right now, and there’s no way around that. There’s nothing to sugarcoat with that. We continue to get good performances from guys, and then we get below-par performances from guys.

“I just can’t figure it out, what it’s gonna take to allow these guys to relax and allow their ability to take over. You’re only as good as your pitching staff.”

Freshman right-hander Andy Cox was a rare bright spot on the mound for UT in Game Two, recording four outs without allowing a single baserunner. Junior left-hander Dalton Saberhagen was solid in the final two innings, too, recording six outs while allowing only one baserunner.

Junior catcher Ethan Bennett pulled the Vols within 14-6 on a two-run homer to left field in the bottom of the eighth, but they’d get no closer than that.

“There’s fight in this team,” Serrano said. “It’s just in the final game of the series, we got behind too far. We didn’t quit. You saw that we put together some good innings. We ran into some balls. We’ve just got to get some answers on the mound, and we need four or five guys to step up and not say, ‘Give me the ball, but show it by their actions out on the field.”

The Vols, who should have plenty of time to practice next week with their peers on spring break, host solid in-state program Tennessee Tech (18-6, 8-1 Ohio Valley Conference) on Tuesday in Lindsey Nelson before playing a big, three-game series next weekend at in-state, SEC rival Vanderbilt.

UT and the second-ranked Commodores (19-4, 3-1 SEC) will play at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Friday, 7 p.m. on Saturday on CSS TV, and 2 p.m. EDT on Sunday.

The Vols’ brutal SEC schedule continues the following three weekends with a home series against fifth-ranked South Carolina, a series at 10th-ranked Kentucky and a home series against sixth-ranked Ole Miss.

UT might have to play for a bit without freshman right fielder and 4-hole hitter Christin Stewart, though. The talented Atlanta-area native left Game Two after pulling up lame and grabbing a hamstring on his way into second base with a double. Stewart has dealt all season with issues with one hamstring, but Serrano said he injured the other one Saturday.

“Stewie’s my boy,” Jackson said. “To see him go through it one time was hard. To see him go through it again is gonna be even tougher, so hopefully he can go in and see (trainers) and get his work in and get back on the field soon.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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