Tennessee's surprising baseball season took another surprising turn Sunday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
No, the Vols didn't win their weekend series with No. 4 Florida. Not that surprising.
But they did manage to score a run in the ninth inning of an 8-1 game dominated by the Gators. And here's the kicker: Plenty of fans were still there to see it.
A crowd of 3,322 had numerous temptations to hit the exits early after the Gators scored four runs in the first inning and added four more over the next three innings. Many of the fans stayed the course, though, applauding with a vengeance when Will Maddox singled home a run in UT's last at-bat.
"I didn't take the applause as sarcasm," Tennessee first-year coach Dave Serrano said. "I took it as 'happy that we scored a run and didn't get shut out.'
"I continue to credit the fans and I want to reiterate to them, 'We're going to get this thing going.' I have all the confidence in the world in myself, the coaching staff and the players. And they're going to be proud that they supported us."
Support of UT baseball was on the rise against the Gators, who lost to the Vols on Saturday after winning Friday night. Tennessee drew 9,561 fans for the three-game series.
Such a turnout would be an off-weekend at Carolina Stadium, where South Carolina had a crowd of 7,011 Sunday afternoon for its victory over Mississippi State. But the Gamecocks have won back-to-back national championships. The Vols haven't had a winning record in SEC play in seven years.
"It was part of my dream when I came back here to bring back an atmosphere of baseball and the excitement of the stadium," said Serrano, a former UT as
sistant coach. "And it's here.
"I got a text (Saturday) from (former UT baseball play-by-play announcer) Mike Keith. He said, 'I'm really surprised how you've gotten the fans and the excitement back in the stadium.' I take that as a huge compliment."
The turnaround has been comparable to the turnout. The Vols (21-15) finished the first half of the SEC season 7-8, which matches their conference win total for all of last season.
They were on the verge of something grander Sunday. A victory against Florida would have left them 3-3 over the past two weekends against South Carolina and Florida, the last teams standing in the 2011 College World Series.
Serrano addressed that opportunity in his pregame speech, but the Vols never threatened the Gators, who balanced six shutout innings from starting pitcher Brian Johnson with an early hitting onslaught against UT starter Nick Williams and an occasional eye-catching defensive play.
"That team (Florida) has a chance to play for a national championship," Serrano said. "They're very deep on the mound. Their lineup is very tough to get through. They play very sound defense."
While the Gators left town with championship aspirations, the Vols ended the first half of the conference season with more modest goals. They're just trying to qualify for the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., which would signify considerable progress for a program picked to finish last in the conference.
Serrano has higher standards in mind long-term. For now, they're overshadowed by the reality of rebuilding a program and the time that demands.
"I'm a very impatient person," he said. "I'm learning patience every single day. ... We're not there yet.
"But we're a lot closer than we were seven months ago when I took the job."