Game reports and weekend wrap-ups for UT baseball are starting to sound like a broken record, and so are head coach Todd Raleigh's post-game comments to the media.
The offense has been so bad for the past few weeks that Raleigh has stopped mentioning specific players or pointing to lineup changes as the source of the problem.
Instead, Raleigh just says that the Vols (19-13, 2-10) are enduring a slump unlike anything he's ever seen, one he sums up with a question at the mention of the team's performance at the plate: "What offense? I haven't seen any."
By the numbers
7. After the series sweep by the Gamecocks this weekend, the Vols have lost seven games in a row.
2-10. Whether it's a missed call by an umpire, a great defensive stop by an opponent or nine innings worth of silent bats, everything is working against the Vols right now. The team's 2-10 start to SEC play is the worst of the Todd Raleigh era.
4. Tennessee has scored just four runs in its last seven SEC games. It's also how many times the Vols have been shut out in that same stretch: Ole Miss, Florida and South Carolina (twice) blanked the Orange and White.
21. That's how many runs the Vols have scored when Steven Gruver, the team's most consistent starter, has taken to the mound. That's good for a hair over 2.6 runs per game and has left the junior lefty with a 3-4 record on the year after four consecutive SEC losses. The consistent offensive struggles when Gruver takes to the mound has drawn comparisons (that no pitcher would invite) to Kenshin Kawakami's 2010 season with the Atlanta Braves.
.110. Khayyan Norfork's .500 average has shrunk by .110 since the open of SEC play, which leaves the agile second baseman with an impressive-on-paper .390 average that hasn't done much to help the team in close to a month.
4-for-59. The Vols haven't hit with consistency of late, but their 4-for-59 mark with runners in scoring position is the key to the problem. Even when they get hits, they aren't strung together to push a runner across the plate.
Raleigh's first ejection of 2011
He looked close to getting tossed the second time he left the dugout to argue in Friday's game against South Carolina, but the umps waited until the next day to hand Raleigh his first ejection of the year.
The Vols had a 1-0 lead in the top of the sixth inning when South Carolina's Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a fly ball deep to right.
Charley Thurber made the grab and gunned a throw home with time for Wes Walker to turn and lay down a tag before an outstretched Robert Beary slid across home plate--that's what Walker thought, but home plate umpire A.J. Lostaglio disagreed and called the runner safe to tie the game at 1 apiece.
Raleigh trotted over from the dugout to back Walker without event, but after Raleigh turned back to the dugout, he said the magic words that apparently get a manager tossed: "That was a bad call."
"He said [my comment] was personal," says Raleigh. "I've been doing this a long time. I've been a lot more personal than that and not been kicked out…if my intention was to get kicked out, I would've went out there and kicked dirt, screaming and everything. I didn't cuss, I didn't raise my voice, I stayed calm."
"That's what you've gotta do as a coach," says Walker. "You've gotta be behind your players all the time. And it was that play that changed the game."
True as that may be, South Carolina scored another run on the next at-bat to give the game its final score, 2-1 in favor of the Gamecocks.
For all the struggles the Vols have had this year, none have been the result of serious injury. But Matt Ramsey, the team's starting catcher and closer whose earned run average is a team-best .097, looks to have ended that streak on Saturday.
After 1.2 shutout innings, during which Ramsey lived up to his billing as the team's most talented pitcher, the Knoxville-native hit Gamecock Jake Williams in the foot with a fastball. Ramsey's next pitch was a few feet outside of the strike zone. He immediately signaled the trainer onto the mound, and limped into the locker room.
From the press box it looked like he was clinching his elbow, but team doctors have preliminarily labeled it a forearm injury. The probably recovery time of a forearm injury, a few days to couple weeks, is good news compared to a possible season-ending elbow injury.
"I think he was very disappointed [for his start to end short]," says Raleigh. "We just couldn't take a chance on his health. We're optimistic but have to be cautious."
Where from here?
The question remains the same from last week and the week before: Can the team change direction in time to make a serious run at Hoover and Omaha?
No one has a firm answer.
Some players say that guys need to stop pressing at the plate, or that the team just needs to play its game, or that the team makes good contact but hits it right at ‘em. Whatever the preferred talking point, no one has a solution for what will cause a substantive turnaround.
Lineup changes would be an obvious place to start, but that's been Raleigh's M.O. since opening day: the team has gone through 31 lineups in 32 games.
The only option that laves is to sit back and wait for Khayyan Norfork, Matt Duffy and someone else to get on a hot streak.
"Once we get one game, one good night at the plate," says Zach Osborne, "we'll get a few in a row. A lot of it's mental but we're fine after we break through that."
Games this week
Tennessee plays Appalachian State in Lindsey Nelson Stadium Tuesday at 7 p.m. It will ideally give the bullpen, which used every pitcher on staff last week, a chance to rest. It also gives Raleigh and the Vols a chance to snap the 7-game skid before heading to Tuscaloosa for a weekend series with (21-13, 7-5) Alabama, which enters the game on a five game losing streak.