Vols searching for answers after 'Cocks sweep SEC series

It's time to return to the drawing board as Tennessee dropped all three of its first Southeastern Conference contests, courtesy the No. 10-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.

Tennessee found out a lot about itself this weekend. Welcome to Southeastern Conference baseball.

The Volunteers crumbled in the late innings Friday in a 7-1 loss to No. 10-ranked South Carolina, couldn’t quite get over the hump in a 6-4 extra-inning loss Saturday and the sweep was completed with a 10-2 Sunday contest that may have been their worst effort of 2017.

All is not lost. Nobody gets mathematically disqualified from the postseason after the first weekend of conference baseball. But, between making more top-shelf pitches in pressure-packed situations, taking advantage of having runners on in early innings and starting arms working deeper into ballgames, Tennessee has work to do to shut up the people claiming “same ole Vols.”

On Sunday, South Carolina (14-5, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) went up 2-0 in the second inning after a throwing error on what should have been a third out extended the frame. The Gamecocks did what good teams do and made the Vols pay for their mistake and Madison Stokes belted a two-run home run.

That was it. Tennessee didn’t so much as tie it up the rest of the way and lightly-used players got in action late in the game.

The Vols totaled 23 hits and drew 13 walks in the three losses to South Carolina. Not a bad offensive showing, but they have to have far more productive outs by getting runners over and getting runners in if they aren’t going to swipe bags (3 stolen bases in 28 innings).

"The approach was there," Tennessee coach Dave Serrano told InsideTennessee on Sunday. "I think all three starters throughout the weekend for them, I think we got their pitch counts up high. There just wasn't a lot of production out of that."

Tennessee was able to avoid South Carolina’s co-ace Clarke Schmidt (obliques) and ironically enough had its best chance at taking one of the three games versus another super-talent in Wil Crowe on Saturday. Banging seven hits and drawing four walks against an arm like Crowe (94-94 in first inning) shows the Vols are capable. They must improve at stringing hits together and decorate the new scoreboard with more crooked numbers.

Tennessee had a solid spot as one of the nation’s top 10 offenses entering league play, however, its batting average plummeted 31 points to .308. Five regulars are hitting .315 or higher but the player who must get going is junior center fielder Brodie Leftridge, who’s down to .188 with a .220 on-base percentage after an 0-for-3 performance Sunday. Getting Justin Ammons (shoulder) back on the diamond will also provide a lift.

Six of the seven home runs hit at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend came from South Carolina sticks. Again, that means the Vols must push runners around the sacks when they get them on (left 27 runners on base this weekend). And the pitching staff must improve at keeping the ball down and changing speeds.

After mowing through the competition through the start of his collegiate career, freshman Garrett Stallings stumbled badly this weekend. The right-hander gave up seven runs on nine hits in 1 2/3 innings over two outings. The 19-year-old has appeared in more games than any other Tennessee reliever (10) and has faced the third most batters. Perhaps 7-10 days off the mound would do Stallings some good. Perhaps not. But, if the Big Orange is going to bridge the gap between a weekend starter and Kyle Serrano to take down future SEC opponents, Stallings will need to play his part.

Dave Serrano said that Stallings was competing but Gamecock hitters teed off as though they knew what was coming.

"He's very important for this pitching staff, and I don't want him to lose confidence," Serrano said of the righty. "That's tough for a freshman to go through what he's done the last two opportunities and get hit like he has, but I think he has the mental aptitude to withstand that. When he toes the rubber again, he'll let it go and get back to what he does."

Tennessee must find more viable options out of the bullpen. It cannot expect a still-maturing arm to provide multiple innings in relief in multiple games weekend after weekend. Other relievers such as Connor Darling, Eric Freeman, Will Heflin, Kyle Serrano, Andrew Schultz and Jacob Westphal have all logged less than six total innings apiece through 17 games. It’s early, so those inning totals aren’t mind-blowing, but someone has to help Stallings carry the load. Zach Linginfelter has had an up-and-down start to his freshman year, and he provides a piece to the bullpen puzzle.

It all starts with locating pitches down in the zone, Dave Serrano says.

"For whatever reason, and I think there were a lot of things that changed this weekend for our guys but the main thing is the part that I work with is the pitching staff," Serrano said. "That was very uncharacteristic of how we've been doing for the first four weekends of where we were in the zone. We've been down in the zone with some good arms. We were elevated this weekend. Every single guy was elevated. I don't know if it was the amped up of the SEC first weekend or I need to be better than I think I am, but we've got to get that fixed immediately."

The SEC is considered to have a trio of major players in Florida, Louisiana State and South Carolina. The Vols have already played one and LSU is not on the schedule. Tennessee will undoubtedly have its hands full down the stretch against others such as Arkansas and Vanderbilt, but it won’t be completely outmuscled with consistency like it has some in other parts of the last decade.

After hosting Marshall on Wednesday, the Orange & White travels to play Mississippi State, which just got swept at Arkansas. The series in Starkville is the exact type Tennessee must win (or sweep) to shut up the “same ole Vols” talk.

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