Tennessee baseball: Vols 2, Vandy 3
HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee played at times this season like an Omaha contender. At other times, they looked like the same program has grown accustomed to spending the postseason at home.
On Tuesday, they managed both appearances in the same inning.
Tennessee’s return to the SEC tournament after a seven-year hiatus lasted only a few hours and ended with familiar frustration in a 3-2 loss to Vanderbilt at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
Tennessee (31-23) became the first team eliminated from the 12-team field. The Vols have only the slimmest chances of being selected to their first NCAA tournament since 2005 when the field is announced on Monday, although coach Dave Serrano said he was ruling nothing out.
“I won’t apologize if we do get in,” Serrano said.
The Vols’ season may have ended in a ninth inning that seemed to embody all the best and worst of the team in 2014.
“Today was a microcosm of what our season’s been about,” Serrano said. “The ninth inning was an example of what we’ve had to live with all year long. It’s a group of guys that have the will to win, that want to win. Just at times the game got moving a little too fast for us.”
Tennessee’s Nick Senzel led off the ninth with a double against Vandy closer Carson Fulmer, who had surrendered only three extra-base hits in 60 innings all season.
Senzel advanced to third on a balk and the Vols seemed poised to tie the game as Fulmer unraveled.
Then the Vols unraveled.
Taylor Smart hit a grounder to third, where Senzel was leading off the bag. The grounder took third baseman Xavier Turner to his right, allowing him to reach out and tag the Farragut High School graduate on the rear end as he dashed back to the bag.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin referred to Turner as a “baseball angel.” Serrano, who has spoken of the “baseball gods” this year, might have seen it differently.
In any case, Fulmer quickly returned to form after the out. He picked Smart off first base — an especially perplexing baserunning gaffe, because Serrano said the steal was not on — and then struck out Vincent Jackson.
The game, and probably Tennessee’s season, was over.
Pitching on light rest, starter Hunter Martin lasted only three innings, but the Vols were helped by four innings of solid relief by freshman and Farragut graduate Kyle Serrano.
Vandy starter Walker Buehler gave up two runs in the second when the Vols pieced together a few hits, but otherwise didn’t labor much in the cavernous ballpark that extends 340 feet down the foul lines.
For the Commodores (41-16), who hope to host an NCAA regional in Nashville, the victory avenged two losses earlier in the year at Knoxville.
“(Tennessee) is another shirt, but it’s a shirt we know well,” Buehler said.
If the season is in fact over for the Vols, Serrano said the team’s experience in Hoover — even if brief — offered something to build on.
The Vols were 2-8 in one-run SEC games this year, reinforcing Serrano’s lessons that just one play can affect a game. Or a season.
“We will be back here,” Serrano said. “We took a step this year, and I’m proud of our guys for that ... We’ll remember how to get here. And now we’ll have to take care of more business next time we get here.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee athletics. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.