HOUSTON — The stains in the orange baseball jersey kept steadily expanding along with Drew Steckenrider's pitch count.
The humidity and a steamy atmosphere were certainly part of the problem for the Tennessee starting pitcher. But the fact that every time he missed the strike zone he was going to be sweating a little more was eventually a far bigger issue.
If Steckenrider had his way, he would have preferred to hang around and keep working longer despite a sticky situation and stickier orange top on Friday in the Houston College Classic. But his control and stamina weren't quite ready for that load as he took the loss in a 7-4 decision to Houston at Minute Maid Park.
"I really didn't think I was doing all that bad up until the fourth inning," Steckenrider said. "That first guy got on, a slider that flipped out of my hand and (hit) him, and from there it started to go downhill.
"Kind of wish (coach Dave Serrano) would have left me in, but I didn't know how high my pitch count was. I still felt like I could have got out of it, worked myself out of my own mess."
Steckenrider had done just that earlier for the Vols (7-2), responding to a visit from Serrano after working into trouble by putting two runners on with two outs in the third.
The junior had thrown 59 pitches when his coach trotted out to the mound for a chat, but his next three deliveries were close to perfect for a jam-escaping strikeout that kept the game scoreless.
But that high tally caught up with him as he labored through the fourth, particularly since Steckenrider had some company giving the Cougars (5-4) free bases.
The hit batter to start the frame got Houston rolling, and it was soon able to chase Steckenrider in an inning he would split with Robbie Kidd as the Vols were charged with a wild pitch, a passed ball and three walks. More important, the Cougars pushed across three critical runs — a total UT's struggling offense couldn't match until a last-ditch, ninth-inning rally.
"Drew knows I'm disappointed in his outing," Serrano said. "That's the second weekend in a row that we've had to go to the bullpen way too early. ... His pitch count shot way up in the third inning, and the fourth inning he just seemed like he was out of gas.
"It's just troubling to me with as good of stuff as he had and how he came out and established something that it just went away again in the third or fourth inning. That could be my fault, maybe he isn't conditioned enough and that's something I need to look into."
Serrano could find several other factors when he looks back at the 3 1/3 innings Steckenrider worked, from the quality of the opponent to the big-league venue and the warmer weather.
But before he can worry about Steckenrider's next start, he's got No. 16 Texas to prepare for today and a team that didn't give him the effort he wanted to open the weekend.
"It was about attitude in every facet of our game," Serrano said. "It's something as a coaching staff that we need to fix.
"Not only did the scoreboard say that team beat us, but we got beat in attitude — and that bothers me because that's something we can control. I don't think we came out with the passion to win every pitch."