It’s been a tough few weeks for Tennessee baseball (19-10, 2-7 SEC) and it’s an uphill battle if the Vols are going to correct course anytime soon.
Losing against Kentucky and Ole Miss in the first two SEC series hurt. The sweep against Florida in Gainesville last weekend was bad enough that the team headed straight to the bus without a word. And the worst yet has to be the Tuesday night “trap game” that caught the Vols looking back, or maybe ahead, but whatever the case, the team’s attention was somewhere other than the game at hand Tuesday night.
Last year, Tennessee thumped Presbyterian 25-7 in a mid-week matchup (yes, it was a baseball game…) but this time around the Blue Hose capitalized on a third inning error and a balk to grab an early 2-0 lead. They never looked back.
If there was ever any question as to who would win the game, it evaporated when Tony Micklon hit a 3-run homer to left field off of Nick Williams in the eighth inning. That swing gave the Blue Hose a 10-2 lead, and even though the Vols managed four consecutive runs to end the game, they never got close enough to make a difference.
“I don’t think I’ve ever preached more in my life about this being a trap game,” Raleigh said. “I knew that getting back at 3 a.m. on Sunday and having a tough weekend, couple that with the tough weekend [against Florida]…that this would be a tough matchup. But I’m not playing.
“It was a trap game and we fell in the trap.”
What’s the problem?
The loss to Presbyterian looks bad on paper and is a game that Tennessee probably should have won, but the loss isn’t as embarrassing as it might look at a glance.
Presbyterian used its most consistent starter, Steven Richardson, who had already beat Clemson and a strong Wofford team this year, and the Blue Hose have already eclipsed the school’s single season win-loss record since they made the jump to Division One in 2008.
What can be taken away from the game, though, is the continuation of problems that have lingered for the past few weeks. Almost everything that made the Vols successful earlier in the season has hit a snag. A few examples:
Khayyan Norfork, whose batting average was above .500 before the SEC schedule opened, is hitting just .161 in his last eight games.
Norfork, Toles and Liles, who tore up the base paths to lead the SEC in stolen bases earlier in the season, have been held up when they reach base.
The same bullpen that had two stretches of more than 20 innings without an earned run shoulders most of the responsibility for five of the six losses.
And the only UT starter that’s shown consistency all year, Steven Gruver, hasn’t received any run support and has lost each of his three SEC starts.
What will it take to end the skid?
If you ask the team’s resident smartass, who will be unnamed, the solution is simple: play better.
A more detailed answer, if you ask most anyone on the team, is that everyone needs to focus 100 percent on the game they’re playing, for middle relief to stop bleeding runs and for the lineup to get back to what it was doing at the beginning of the year.
“Our bullpen is gonna step up as we start to win,” Raleigh said. “And on offense, Khay and Matt [Duffy] need to play well this weekend. Somebody needs to get a big hit to clear the bases, maybe Tyler Horne, but someone has to step up behind them.”
“Our team needs to come together,” shortstop Zach Osborne said. “Some our players are playing tight, tense around the locker room. We need to play loose and get back to playing our game.”
No. 3 South Carolina enters the weekend on a six-game win streak and is projected by Baseball America and many others to fight Florida for the SEC East.
Rob Catapano (2-1, 3.18 ERA) will start Thursday, Steven Gruver (3-3, 3.04 ERA) Friday and a pitcher to be determined Saturday. Matt Ramsey, who already closes and starts as catcher, will get his first full start of the year Sunday, if he isn’t brought into relief earlier in the weekend.
To fit with ESPNU’s schedule, the series against South Carolina will kick off Thursday with autograph signings by Bret Saberhagen, Craig Cobb and Condredge Holloway.
“They have a great team,” Raleigh said. “We need to play our best.”