After two full seasons at Tennessee and 30 more games in 2014 — including the past two weekends of sometimes stomach-churning drama against the nation’s top baseball teams — coach Dave Serrano thinks he’s finally seen it.
The Vols shut out No. 4 Vanderbilt 7-0 on Sunday, taking two of three during the weekend and winning a series against a top-five team for the first time since 2009.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for a defining moment,” Serrano said. “I think beating Vanderbilt here at home is a defining moment.”
The No. 25 Vols (21-9, 5-7 SEC) were swept a week ago at South Carolina, increasing the importance of this weekend’s home series against the Commodores.
Two late-inning losses doomed the Vols at Carolina, and UT lost the opener to Vandy on Friday. But the Vols rallied with a walk-off hit to win a four-hour marathon on Saturday, then dispatched the Commodores (26-7, 6-6) with surprisingly little drama on Sunday.
The series win was the first over Vanderbilt since 2010 and the first nine-inning shutout victory against them since March 3, 1985.
The announced crowd of 3,306 was the highest-attended game since 2012.
The good vibes at Lindsey Nelson Stadium were tough to ignore.
“This was a season-changer,” said Christin Stewart, who had two hits and three RBIs on Sunday.
Freshman starter Kyle Serrano, the coach’s son, pitched 5 1/3 innings of the Vols’ shutout, allowing just two hits. He overcame early control trouble to get the win.
Relievers Andy Cox and Andrew Lee combined for 3 2/3 innings of hitless ball to finish the game.
The Vols won’t return home until a series against Alabama on April 18. In the meantime, they have a trip to Tennessee Tech on Tuesday and a series at Georgia this weekend. The Hokie-Smokey Classic against Virginia Tech is April 15 at Salem, Va.
“I’m so proud of them to beat one of the big boys in the SEC, but it won’t mean anything if we go out next week and don’t compete to win a series or sweep a series,” Serrano said.
Serrano has frequently praised the character of his clubhouse, but he also wants to see his young team develop a killer instinct.
That means seizing momentum now rather than sliding back into old habits.
“We have some great guys in this program, guys that I’m really proud to call our team,” he said. “We have too nice of kids sometimes. Nice guys finish last. We have to get gritty, get dirty, fight, claw and do whatever it takes to not let an opponent come in and have fun in our ballpark.”
This weekend, the Vols did just that, but the absurdly congested SEC standings leave little room for error. Twelve of the league’s 14 teams are separated by no more than two games. For all its progress, Tennessee sits in a three-way tie for 11th place. The top 12 teams earn a trip to the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee athletics. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.