Following the Volunteers' impressive road series win against heralded Arizona State, Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano's primary concern, ironically, had very little to do with the game of baseball.
"First and foremost we want to get this team home safely," he said on Sunday, just moments after his squad upended the Sun Devils 6-4 in Tempe, Ariz.
And in one piece those in orange returned to Knoxville, surviving both the nearly three-hour flight from Phoenix to Nashville and the ensuing late-night bus trip back home.
But less than 36 hours after exiting the Music City airport, the No. 17 Vols (14-1) will head straight back down Interstate 40 — this time en route to Murfreesboro, Tenn., where they'll visit Middle Tennessee State (5-9) tonight at 7 p.m. EST.
This evening's in-state battle marks UT's fourth road contest in five days and is the second leg of a seven-game, three-city stretch that spills over into SEC play. This wearisome scenario, however, wasn't supposed to transpire when the Vols' schedule was initially constructed.
"Anyone that's looking at what we're doing could think, 'Why would they do that?'" Serrano said on March 5, the night before leaving for Tempe. "Originally, we were going to Arizona State and were going to play MTSU (at home) Tuesday. Because of our final schedule we had to switch sites (with the Blue Raiders). Instead of us going (to Murfreesboro) at the end of April, we had to flip flop that."
With the change, the Vols will now transport their once-blemished record to MTSU's Reese Smith Jr. Field, a baseball venue that's been rather unkind to Serrano during his Knoxville tenure.
In back-to-back seasons, the Blue Raiders have defended their home turf in riveting fashion against their in-state counterpart, outscoring the Vols by a combined 22-9 while cruising to a pair of blowout victories.
"It'll be another challenge for us," Serrano said. "We haven't played well at Middle Tennessee in my time here, so that'll be the main focus of Tuesday."
Specifically looking to curb the Blue Raider dominance will be sophomore Drake Owenby (1-0, 4.05 ERA), who gets the nod on the mound in what will be his first start in almost a year.
This season, the Knoxville southpaw has served as the Vols' primary closer through the first 15 games. His most recent outing came in Saturday's 6-5 win over ASU, where he allowed a Sun Devil run in the ninth but still managed to convert his fourth save of the year.
If Owenby struggles, though, it could be another extensive evening for the Vols' bullpen, which as of late has been regularly called upon without hesitation in pivotal situations.
In both of UT's victories over the Sun Devils, Serrano showed minimal patience with the struggling starter and hastily signaled for the relief corps before the fifth inning concluded.
And in each instance, the bullpen firmly delivered, allowing a grand total of two earned runs and a pair of free passes in 10 2/3 effective frames.
"The bullpen is winning a lot of games for this team," Serrano said at Monday's press conference. "That's where the strength of our staff is right now."
UT relievers secured both a win and a save in those first two road victories of the year. In the process, they helped lower the bullpen's season ERA to a measly 2.03 in just less than 70 innings pitched.
Sophomore Andy Cox, who appeared in all three ASU contests, headlines that prolific slew of UT arms with a team-high 19 strikeouts and eight outings in relief.
"(I'm) happy (in) the way the bullpen continues to perform," Serrano said, "and obviously Andy Cox has been a big part of that."
Meanwhile, MTSU enters tonight's matchup on a month-long cold steak, having lost 5-of-6 dating back to March 1. On Friday, the squad opened up a three-game set at Alabama-Birmingham with a victory, but that's all the Blue Raiders could salvage of the weekend series — they dropped the final two contests by a combined three runs.
MTSU's signature performance to date, though, may have been in another midweek showdown against an SEC opponent. On March 5, the Blue Raider bullpen held then-No.6 Vanderbilt scoreless for the final seven innings, only to have the highly-touted Commodores narrowly escape with a 4-3 win.
Once UT outfielder Jared Allen — one of two former Vols on the MTSU roster — garnered three hits and two RBI in the one-run loss to last season's SEC regular season champions.
Allen, as well as junior pitcher Brandon Zajac, was a part of Serrano's first squad in Knoxville, but each transferred to a local junior college for a year before signing with the Blue Raiders.
This season, Allen has started every game and is currently top 5 on the team in at-bats (51), hits (14), runs (7), homers (2) and RBI (8). Zajac, however, hasn't been as fortunate since arriving in Murfreesboro. The southpaw is currently out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.