When Tennessee starter Hunter Martin got into a jam in the fourth inning last week at Missouri, Vols’ coach Dave Serrano knew where to turn.
Left-handed sophomore reliever Andy Cox has doused big innings, preserved leads and made crucial outs in brief outings and long ones, in early innings and late in the game.
Last weekend, Cox escaped the jam in the fourth and pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief to earn his third win of the season in a 5-1 victory over the Tigers.
In 12 appearances and 29 1/3 innings this year, Cox has allowed only three earned runs. Opponents are batting only .128 against him and he has a 0.92 ERA.
As the 14th-ranked Vols (18-2, 2-1 SEC) prepare to play Auburn (15-7, 2-1) this weekend at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, more than one coach has called Cox the team’s pitching MVP.
Compared to major-league bullpens obsessed with well-defined roles, Cox has pitched in just about every situation imaginable. If he has a role, it’s to put out fires whenever they occur, and he’s embraced it.
“He’s mature enough to handle it,” said Serrano. “He knows that in every game, he has an opportunity to come in.”
Cox, who arrived at UT as a late commitment from suburban Memphis, made 21 appearances and six starts as a freshman in 2013, so he’s no novice. But on a team stacked with young, high-profile arms, his emergence has been a pleasant surprise.
A slender 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, Cox said he relies on “arm quickness” rather than arm strength, per se. He throws mainly a fastball and a slider, which is especially effective against left-handed hitters. He also takes pride in his quick move to the plate and his ability to hold runners — two crucial skills for a lefty reliever.
“When I get a chance to come out of the bullpen, it’s all about throwing strikes,” Cox said. “I try to get ahead in the count. I don’t try to miss bats.”
By the numbers alone, Cox might be due for a promotion to the weekend rotation, but he’s been far more valuable coming out of the bullpen, appearing in 60 percent of the Vols’ games.
He’s part of a staff that is considerably deeper than anticipated, even though Serrano says he’s convinced it has yet to reach its full potential.
“We’ve probably pitched better than I expected we would to this point,” Serrano said. “But I still think we can pitch better.”
The Vols will start senior Nick Williams (3-1, 1.48 ERA) on Friday at 6 p.m., freshman Martin (2-0, 0.73) on Saturday at 4 p.m. and sophomore Andrew Lee (2-0, 3.46) on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Auburn will counter with senior Dillon Ortman (4-1, 1.83), freshman Keegan Thompson (4-0, 0.69) and sophomore Justin Camp (1-2, 2.90).
The Tigers have won nine of their last 10 games after a sluggish start to the season under first-year coach Sunny Golloway.
Tennessee assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Aric Thomas was an assistant under Golloway at Oklahoma.
On Friday, the first 500 fans will receive a Todd Helton replica jersey. Saturday’s game will be televised by CSS. On Sunday, children 12 and younger will be admitted free.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee athletics. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.