While sifting through the fallout of another nail-biting defeat, Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano discovered some monumental progress.
Not enough, however, to alter the final result as the No. 25 Vols fell to No. 7 Vanderbilt 6-4 in the series opener Friday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"I thought we took a big step forward," Serrano said. "It's hard for people to understand that. We lost, and we don't want to lose to anyone let alone our in-state rival. But I thought tonight — in a losing effort — I thought we took a big step, and I think it's going to pay dividends for the rest of the weekend and as we move on through our schedule.
"I felt we fought a little bit better tonight, and I thought we did some things that were more characteristic of what we're trying to instill in this program."
Nevertheless, the Vols (19-9, 3-7 SEC) have now lost five straight contests and nine of their last 10 to the Commodores (25-6, 6-4) dating back to 2011.
"They know that it isn't just going to magically happen for us," Serrano said. "We'd like to believe it can just be magic, but it's gonna be continuing hard work and focus. We've got to continue to fight. But that's what's so beautiful about athletics, is you've got to keep fighting."
Despite coming into Friday's game having scored just one run in their last 23 innings, the Vols hardly looked like a squad sporting that sort of offensive deficiency early on.
With two outs in the first, UT loaded the bases via two singles and a hit batsman, presenting a prime RBI situation for red-hot Taylor Smart.
The senior third baseman, who was hitting .370 (10-for-27) in his last ten games before his first inning at-bat, roped a run-scoring double to left-center that cleared the bases and gave the Vols and early 3-0 advantage.
"That's a good feeling — especially for the team," Smart said. "Everybody's fired up — the fans were into it. It was a good inning for us.
"I just wanna see us string some more of those types of innings together."
Smart's plea became necessary because after the initial scoring spurt, Vanderbilt junior ace Tyler Beede (5-3, 2.81) stifled the Vols' offense, limiting Serrano's squad to just two hits and four baserunners after the first inning.
Overall, Beede, a former MLB first-round draft pick and 2013 USA Baseball national team participant, surrendered four runs and five hits with a pair of walks and six strikeouts in eight innings of work.
"Beede's a good pitcher," Smart said. "There's no doubt about that. He got picked in the first round (of the Major League Baseball draft) out of high school. That's one of the best pitchers in the country. But, you know, anybody can be beaten any day. You've just got to put good swings on the ball and hunt a pitch, and good things can happen."
In the fourth, the Commodores began pecking away at UT's lead, stringing together four consecutive base knocks — the final a two-run double from shortstop Vince Conde — to even the score at three.
Just one frame later, Vanderbilt took hold of the reins for good with back-to-back RBI doubles from right fielder Rhett Wiseman and third baseman Xavier Turner, giving VU a 5-3 advantage.
Turner's two-bagger chased UT starter Nick Williams (3-3, 2.68), who surrendered five runs and eight hits in only 4 1/3 innings.
"It just wasn't Nick's night on the mound," Serrano said. "See Nick's a guy that pitches up in the zone or way down in the zone. Today he was up in the bad part of the 'up in the zone' where it was into their swings and they made him pay for that. That's what good team will do."
The Commodores added their final run in sixth with the help of two UT errors, but the Vols quickly answered back in the bottom half as Smart launched a solo home run onto to the left-field porch.
VU's lead was trimmed to 6-4, but the UT lumber could go no further. In the final three innings, the Vols didn't get a runner past first base, including a 1-2-3 ninth that saw VU closer Carson Fulmer notch his ninth save of the year.
"It's hard, but we just got to fight through it," said sophomore Andy Cox, who tossed one-hit ball in 2 2/3 innings of relief. "We just got to kick the door down that's holding us back, and we just got to keep pushing on and keep fighting. It's a long season. There's a lot more SEC weekends left I feel like we're going to be fine we just got to string together (good performances) and do our thing."
UT returns to action tomorrow evening against the Commodores at 7 p.m. The game will be televised locally on CSS, with freshman hurler Hunter Martin (2-1, 1.14) getting the nod for the Vols.