Friday – Khayyan Norfork gave the Vols a three-run lead when he hit a bases-clearing double in the second inning, and a sac-fly by Matt Duffy in the seventh sealed the deal. The combination of a perfect defensive effort and pitchers Steven Gruver, Zach Godley and Nick Williams was able to shutout the Panthers despite letting up 10 hits in the game. 4-0 Tennessee.
Saturday – In his first start for Tennessee, Jon Reed gave up three runs early and was pulled in the third inning shortly after he reached 60 pitches. Tennessee rallied to tie the game in the bottom half of that frame and later took a lead that was threatened late but never overcome. 7-6 Tennessee.
Sunday – If the game wasn't over when Jerod Peper was pulled after giving up five runs in the first start of his UT career, it was definitely over when Drew Steckenrider and Rob Catapano let up four more runs over the next two innings. The Vols cut the lead to three but the rally ended short of turning into a complete comeback because of untimely double plays. 9-6 Milwaukee.
Tennessee baseball's season-opening series against the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee started with a high note: the team notched its first shutout in a season-opener during Todd Raleigh's four years at the helm for UT. But the weekend closed with the frustration of a self-inflicted loss that saw the Volunteers trailing by as many as nine runs.
Most of the storylines from the team's first few baseball games are predictable enough—a slew of freshmen and transfer players suited up in orange and white for the first time; there was almost as much concern from UT's dugout with keeping low pitch counts and letting pitchers fine tune recent additions to their repertoires as there was with the box score; at the plate, some quicker than others, the Vols adjusted to the new pitcher-friendly BBCOR bats.
But there were a few surprises, at least three of which should give UT fans reason for cautious optimism.
Foremost is the fact that the team appears to have found a legitimate top starter in Steven Gruver, even if the team allowed 15 runs and 31 hits in the series.
"[Gruver] competed, he made some pitches and he really helped himself out there a couple of times with those pick-off moves," head coach Todd Raleigh said.
"He looked like a number one."
Gruver, who tossed eight strikeouts in six innings Friday, was clearly bolstered by the second reason for Vols fans to fill Lindsey Nelson Stadium: defense.
"[Our defense] was unbelievable this weekend," Raleigh said. "We made one error, which was a pitcher on a pick off. You don't see that [level of consistency] very often."
Second baseman Khayyan Norfork had what Raleigh considers the play of the weekend during the seventh inning of Sunday's game. Milwaukee's Tell Taylor roped a ball that skipped over second base and hopped to the edge of the infield where grass creeps onto the dirt. A fully-extended Norfork gloved the ball and used the momentum of his dive to pivot and throw in time to beat the runner.
"Everyone in the infield, on the team, put in a lot of work this offseason," Norfork said. "We pride ourselves in our defense."
Norfork and shortstop Zach Osborne turned three double plays together and combined for 10 putouts and 22 assists on the weekend.
"Both of them were great," Raleigh said. He also pointed out that the guy they were throwing to for all those outs was just as important. "Josh Liles has been our center fielder the last couple years to first…and he gives us a very athletic first baseman, probably the most athletic first baseman in the country."
Middle of the Lineup
Norfork did more than field the ball this weekend. Hitting in the two-hole, he was at the heart of an effective lineup and finished with an on-base-percentage of .667, 4 RBI and a homerun after 13 plate appearances.
Tyler Horne, hitting cleanup, has a .538 on-base-percentage in as many plate appearances.
No one who hit between two and six in the order this weekend finished with less than a .400 on-base-percentage. "The guys who got off to a quick start are the ones who didn't think too much about the bats, the first game, anything like that," Matt Duffy said. "You can't think too much. "Fortunately a lot of our guys had that approach."
Question Marks—Looking Ahead
It's worth pointing out that Milwaukee has a good baseball program that returns a lot of talent from a team that made the NCAA tournament last year, so the fact that the Panthers played neck-to-neck with the Vols isn't necessarily reason for concern.
What makes the Bruce Pearl-like offensive production from Milwaukee frustrating is the fact that the so-called "Blizzard of the Century" has kept the Panthers from practicing outside this year and the team stepped off the bus after an 11-hour trip ready to play.
"Coming out of the gym, you never know what we're going to get," Milwaukee coach Scott Doffek said. "We haven't even played catch outside yet, so it's a little bit tricky…their pitchers, had some trouble locating today and yesterday and that gave us some chances."
The biggest roster concern the Vols have right now is definitely pitching. How will Jon Reed bounce back after a tough first outing? Who is going to settle in as the team's Sunday starter? What did Milwaukee figure out to hit everyone Tennessee put on the mound Saturday and Sunday?
"I saw some good things from some of our pitchers, but we need to be a little bit better overall," Raleigh said. "There are still some questions we need to answer."
Situational hitting is another big concern—in Sunday's loss the Vols left 11 runners stranded, none more painful than when Chris Fritts hit into a double play with the bases loaded in the fifth inning.
"We rallied and kept fighting [Sunday] but our situational hitting was kind of deflating at times," third baseman Matt Duffy said. "We need to work on that, we need to be a lot better with guys on base."
This weekend Tennessee has a home stand against a Canisius team that finished second in the MAAC tournament last year.