HOUSTON—It's still early March, and Dave Serrano's rebuilding project at Tennessee is still in its infancy, but Serrano did not try to downplay the significance of his team's 5-4 win against Texas on Saturday.
"That was a big win—there are no ifs, ands or buts about it," Serrano said. "We try to say it's another game—it isn't another game. We played the University of Texas, and we came out on top."
It was an important day for the Volunteers, just as it was for Houston, which improved to 2-0 at the Houston College Classic with a 4-1 win against No. 4 Arkansas earlier Saturday. Second-year Houston coach Todd Whitting is a little further along in his rebuilding effort, but both teams can use Saturday's victories to take stock of their progress and build some confidence.
"It doesn't matter who we're beating, we're winning, and that's the main thing," Whitting said. "That's what these guys need. I thought until today's game, even last night, we didn't play games to win. And today they absolutely went out there and they played to win, they didn't play to lose at all. Everybody was aggressive. We continued for two days in a row to be aggressive at home plate. If we can continue to do that, we'll beat some people."
In Whitting's first season, the Cougars scrapped their way to a .500 record in Conference USA play and reached the championship game of the conference tournament. Whitting and his staff hoped to build on that momentum by complementing a core of veteran holdovers with a solid recruiting class, and Whitting made a point of highlighting the play of freshmen Cory Kay, Kendall Stacks and Price Jacobs on Saturday. Kay, making his first start, homered in his second career at-bat in the second inning, then delivered an RBI single in Houston's crucial two-run fifth.
The three-run cushion proved enough support for senior lefthander Jordan Lewis and senior righty Codey Morehouse, who combined to limit a dangerous Arkansas offense to a run on six hits. Lewis turned in six strong innings, mixing his high-80s fastball with a solid 76-78 breaking ball and a low-80s change.
"I thought he was a really good matchup for Arkansas—they can really swing the bat," Whitting said. "It's an aggressive team, but I felt really good going into the game because he never really leaves anything over the plate. A couple times when he did leave it over, they hurt him a little bit. But he did a great job of pitching around the middle, and against a team like Arkansas that can really swing the bat, you've got to do that."
Two other newcomers, junior-college transfers Jacob Lueneburg and Casey Grayson, have fit in nicely in the middle of the lineup, sandwiched around cleanup man Chase Jensen, who is playing second base instead of his usual shortstop while he rehabs an arm injury.
Defense was a major area of concern for Houston heading into the season, but so far it has been an area of strength for the Cougars, thanks in part to senior Jake Runte's steady work at short in Jensen's stead. He made one dazzling play in the fifth inning Saturday, diving to his right on a hot shot by Derrick Bleeker and getting up to make a strong throw to first for the out. Whitting calls Grayson one of the best defensive first basemen he has ever coached, and senior John Cannon has improved dramatically behind the plate.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a position player improve as much as John Cannon as at his position," Whitting said. "Before I got here, people used to run all over him. You can't run on John Cannon."
Tennessee's defense is still a work in progress, but undersized shortstop Zach Osborne is a reliable infield anchor in addition to being a sparkplug in the No. 2 hole in the lineup. And the Vols got a big boost Saturday from a pair of outfield assists at second base, by right fielder Jared Allen in the second and by left fielder Chris Pierce in the sixth. That helped junior righthander Zack Godley hold the Longhorns to three runs over seven strong innings, frequently getting ahead in counts thanks to his quality changeup and ability to spot his high-80s fastball.
"He got some quick counts; I'm very proud of him," Serrano said. "Early on, I knew he had good stuff but he was rough around the edges. And he's still rough around the edges, but he's starting to figure it out."
Nick Williams followed with two solid frames to preserve the win, getting Mark Payton to pop up with the tying run at third in the ninth to end it. The Volunteers, who improved to 8-2 with Saturday's win, have a promising group of pitchers they can rely upon, which is a good sign for the future of the program—this season and beyond.
"There are some young guys that I think will grow up in our program," Serrano said. "It all starts with pitching. As we build this foundation, and I look at some of these pitchers and some of the young guys, it's a great foundation to have. I'm anxious to see these guys grow up right before my very eyes."
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