The pitching was there. The offense had done enough. It was there for the taking.
All the UT baseball team needed was three more outs.
But after extending the lead to 3-1 following an eighth inning Christin Stewart homer, the Volunteers (17-20, 5-12 SEC) collapsed in the final frame, allowing three runs on just two hits en route to a 4-3 loss and a series sweep at the hands of No. 17 Ole Miss (28-12, 9-8 SEC) Sunday afternoon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
"In those kinds of situations, there's not really any words that's going to make them feel better, there's nothing you can say," head coach Dave Serrano said. "What I did tell them is that Tuesday we get another opportunity to get better as a team, and that hopefully this adversity will make us a stronger team."
After Serrano called Sunday's contest "a big game for this team and this program," Tennessee's second-year manager handed the ball to starter Zack Godley for the third consecutive weekend finale, looking for a clutch performance out of his senior ace.
And for eight innings, the Bamberg, S.C., native was nothing short of brilliant, surrendering only four hits and one unearned run, while striking out six.
The ninth, however, was a different story.
Leading by two and needing only three outs for his second straight complete game victory, Godley gave up a leadoff double and a walk to start the frame. With two on and nobody down, Rebel pinch hitter Christian Helsel dropped down a sacrifice bunt, looking to move the runners into scoring position. He did more than that as Godley threw the ball into left field, allowing a run to score which cut the Ole Miss deficit to one.
"It's a shame because (Godley) battled his tail off all game for us," Serrano said. "It's such a shame for their rally to be created by a mistake by him."
"I don't know what happened, but that's how baseball goes," Godley added.
Consecutive RBIs followed the error, and Ole Miss led by just a single run, heading into the final frame.
A Volunteer offense that saw catcher Ethan Bennett rope a clutch pinch hit RBI double in the seventh and Stewart – who hit .300 with three RBIs and two runs scored on the weekend – blast his second long ball of the season off the right field scoreboard in the eighth, could do nothing off Rebel closer Brett Huber, going 1-2-3 quietly to end the game.
Godley finished the afternoon with a complete game, six-hitter, giving up four runs (one earned) with seven punch outs.
A weekend series that was supposed to be emotionally charged following Tennessee's three-game win streak proved disappointing from the get-go as Serrano's squad fell victim to Ole Miss starter Bobby Wahl's nearly flawless pitching in a 5-0 shutout Friday evening.
"I'm a little confused on the lack of energy and the urgency," Serrano said after Friday's loss. "We have a chance to come out and beat a good team on a Friday night, which we haven't done very often. We just had no energy."
Vincent Jackson was the lone bright spot in the opener, picking two of Tennessee's three hits.
Saturday's contest proved a bit more encouraging as the Volunteers lead 3-2 after six innings, but more pitching inconsistencies plagued Tennessee in the latter stages as the Rebels managed four runs in the game's final three frames to squeeze out a 6-4 victory.
Junior starting pitcher Nick Williams tossed 8 1/3 innings of five-run ball, his longest outing of the season, and freshman Andrew Lee crushed his first career home run in the loss.
"You look across the field, and it's hard for me to say this, but you see a team in Ole Miss that is expecting to win and you're still seeing a team in our dugout that is hoping to win," Serrano said following Saturday's loss. "That's a big difference right there when you have that going."
The Diamond Vols now hit the road for four games, starting Tuesday with a trip to Murfreesboro versus MTSU before heading to Gainesville for a set with Florida next weekend.