Time will tell if this Tennessee baseball team is as good as third-year coach Dave Serrano claims.
Tennessee sophomore pitcher Andrew Lee (UT photo)
Say this much for the Vols, though: They’re a lot better than Purdue.
Tennessee erased an early deficit — its first of the young season — and put another pounding on Purdue on Monday to sweep the three-game series over the Boilermakers.
A solid career-first start from big sophomore right-hander Andrew Lee and plenty of patience at the plate led the Vols to an 8-2, sweep-clinching win at a chilly, windy Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
The Vols (3-0) blasted the Boilermakers (0-3) by a combined score of 31-4 during the two-day, three-game series.
“It was a good weekend for many reasons,” Serrano said. “A sweep is always good, and we got a lot of guys in there. Got a lot of guys position players in, and a lot of pitchers for their feet wet for the first time.
“This is a team win, but today’s kind of about Andrew Lee.”
Lee didn’t disappoint in his debut on the mound. The strong-armed, 6-foot-6 sophomore wasn’t flawless in his five-inning, 75-pitch debut, but he was solid — especially considering the circumstances.
Monday was Lee’s first appearance on the mound because he wasn’t allowed to pitch last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. And it went pretty well. The Morristown, Tenn., native allowed just four hits and one run, striking out three and walking just one.
Vols senior RF Scott Price (UT photo)
Lee said Monday’s return was an “unbelievable” moment after a long road of recovery.
“It’s hard to describe, but it just felt great being able to (pitch) again, and being able to be on that mound,” Lee said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Beyond that, Lee said his velocity and command felt “about the same” as it had been.
“It’s just been about getting consistent,” said Lee, a former star at Knoxville-area Morristown High School. “That was my goal, and I feel like that’s what I’ve been able to do lately, and it’s working out for me.”
Serrano, who before the injury saw Lee as an immediate contributor on the mound, said “everyone” in the program was happy for the tall East Tennessean.
“He’s worked extremely hard,” Serrano said. “I’ll never forget that phone call in June (2012), when he had to tell me that he was gonna have to have Tommy John, and he wasn’t gonna be able to pitch for us his first year. He’s worked extremely hard to come back. There’s been a lot of patience involved in this, and he’s healed good. And he’s a welcome member on this pitching staff.
“He pounded the strike zone. He set the tempo. I’m very proud of him.”
Purdue opened Monday’s scoring on center fielder Kyle Johnson’s RBI single in the top of the second, but the Vols responded in a big way in the bottom half of the inning.
Vols junior catcher Tyler Schultz (UT photo)
Twelve Vols came to the plate in a seven-run frame that featured a ton of free passes from Purdue’s pitchers and only one really big blow from Tennessee’s bats — a three-run double from senior right fielder Scott Price, scoring second baseman Will Maddox, catcher Tyler Schultz and third baseman Taylor Smart.
Aside from that, though, patience was Tennessee’s biggest friend on a day that started under bright, reasonably warm sunshine but ended under the lights in a brisk, chilly wind.
The Vols drew nine walks, which helped them score eight runs despite collecting just seven hits on what Serrano called an “opportunity” day at the plate.
“Early in the season, your blood’s flowing, your heart’s beating, and you want to go for the fence,” said Price, who was 3-for-4 on Monday with four RBI. “But a lot of times, you’ve really just got to take what the defense gives you, or what the pitchers give you. If they’re not gonna fill up the zone, or if they’re not gonna establish a low strike zone ... you know, if they make mistakes, we’re gonna make ‘em pay.
“But fortunately for us today, they were a little erratic. They were all over the place, and we just took what they gave us.”
Freshman designated hitter Nick Senzel from Knox County powerhouse national Farragut High School continued the hot start to his college career, going 2-for-2 on Monday to finish his first series with a .444 batting average.
Smart, Schultz and sophomore center fielder Vincent Jackson also had at least one RBI for the Vols, whose preseason confidence at the plate hasn’t been curtailed.
“We have a lot of confidence in our offense, and we feel like one through nine, we’re just as good as really anyone in the country,” said Price, the SEC’s leading returning hitter from last season. “We’ve got speed. We’ve got power. We’ve got all the tools this year to have a very successful offense.”
As good as the Vols felt this weekend, though, Serrano said he and his players knew the schedule was about to get tougher.
Tennessee hosts Appalachian State (0-3) on Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST before hosting solid UNLV (4-0) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Sophomore left-hander Andy Cox (0-0, 0.00 ERA) is scheduled to start on the mound for theVols on Wednesday after looking solid in two innings of one-hit relief against Purdue on Sunday. Cox had a 5.29 ERA in 21 appearances — six being starts — last season as a freshman.
Appalachian State opened its season by being swept at 25th-ranked Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Mountaineers were thumped in the opener before coming back to play better on Saturday and Sunday, losing those games by final scores of 7-6 and 8-3.
“We still have a long ways to go,” Serrano said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever won an SEC championship or a national championship on one weekend sweep. It gets us going in the direction, but just like I told (the team), if we were 0-3, we’re still gonna work on the same things when we get back to the table.
“And we’re gonna continue to build as a team and as a program, and not be satisfied with where we’re at.”
But a season-opening sweep is a “great way to get going,” as Price noted with a big grin.
“Yes, it is (a good start) — long time coming, too,” Price said. “It took us a couple extra days to finally get out here. But 3-0, I mean, no matter who you’re playing or what level of competition you’re playing, 3-0 is a good way to start.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247