Friday - Steven Gruver turned in another solid start that gave Tennessee a chance to win, but two storylines drowned out Gruver's 7-plus innings: Matt Crouse kept UT's hitters on their heels all night and tossed a complete game for Ole Miss, and except for Matt Duffy, Tennessee's lineup hit 2-for-25. The offensive performance (or lack thereof) was the worst yet for Tennessee this year. Ole Miss, 6-1
Saturday - The rain varied between a drizzle and a pour heavy enough for fans to crowd beneath the porch next to coaches offices in Lindsey Nelson Stadium, but the TV broadcast proved incentive enough for the game to continue without delay. It wasn't, as head coach Todd Raleigh pointed out, the best game Tennessee has played this year, but the Vols used a good start by Rob Catapano and a 3-run seventh inning to pull ahead of the Rebels for good in what was a back-and-forth matchup. Tennessee, 6-4
Sunday - The game started with a 10-pitch at bat by the Rebels' Tanner Mathis that rattled UT starter Levi Dean, who entered the game with what he called his best stuff of the year but left in the third inning scratching his head. Dean let up three runs, but that was just the start of it. Check any part of the box and you'll have an idea of how the game turned out. Ole Miss had 12 hits to Tennessee's 4; the Rebels used two pitchers to the Vols' six; Khayyan Norfork, Andrew Toles and Duffy combined for less hits than the Rebels number-8 hitter. By the time it was over, Tennessee had its worst loss of the season. Ole Miss, 8-0 Back to the…past?
In many ways the second conference series for Tennessee (18-6, 2-4) was a repeat of last week's SEC-opener in Lexington.
Sure, this week's games were played at Lindsey Nelson but just like the series against Kentucky, the Vols lost the opener and the rubber match but somehow made just enough work to win on Saturday and avoid the sweep.
"It was," Raleigh said. "It's just hard to come back all the time."
Raleigh used 18 different lineups in the first 18 games this year, and before the conference schedule started up it seemed like he could put anyone into the power spots of the lineup to positive effect -- until this weekend, the team had the No. 7 batting average of any D-1 team in the country.
No stretch of the lineup performed remarkably well against Ole Miss, but the struggles are probably best seen by the previously uber-effective Norfork and Toles, who combined to hit 4-for-23 this weekend.
"I think that was the first time all year we kind of pressed offensively," Raleigh said. "We couldn't get in our game -- you fall behind like that, you can't [expect to win]."
Throwing in the dark
Probably most concerning from the second lost SEC series this year is the fact that Steven Gruver is the only starter to demonstrate the consistency necessary for the team's season to end in Hoover or Omaha instead for the first time in Todd Raleigh's career at UT.
"Coming into the year we thought our rotation could be [Jerod] Peper, [Drew] Steckenrider and [Jon] Reed, but for injuries or whatever reason, we're just not there," Raleigh said. "We're still trying to figure out that third guy."
The options Raleigh mentioned have all blown up to varying degrees: Peper has yet to appear since his ERA bloated to 37.80 after he let up three runs against New Orleans a couple weeks ago; Steckenrider allowed a combined seven runs in his last two starts, against Manhattan and Kentucky, before Raleigh pulled the plug and gave Catapano a start against Ole Miss; Reed has a 4.50 earned run average after five starts and has been relegated to the mid-week games.
"We're sticking with Gruver and Catapano [who lasted five innings against Ole Miss for a team win] but we're looking for a third guy to step up," said Raleigh.
Said Dean: "Everyone [on the pitching staff] comes out and works hard. They're just waiting for that opportunity. I got that opportunity today and really didn't fulfill that role very well. But I'm gonna go back to work this week this week and try to turn it around this weekend."
Jon Reed will start against UNC-Asheville on Wednesday's 7 p.m. tune-up game before the Vols head to Gainesville for a series against the Gators.
Florida dropped its home-series this weekend against South Carolina, but is still regarded as a favorite to win the SEC East -- the Gators won 2-of-3 last year in Knoxville.
Gruver will start Friday and Catapano Saturday, but Raleigh will consider Dean, Steckenrider, Carter Watson, Dalton Saberhagen and, from the sound of it, anyone else with an arm for the last start of the weekend.