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Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney

Feb. 6, 2006


Friday's opener against Tennessee featured a steady diet of James Adkins and his assortment of dominant breaking stuff. It's been some time since I've seen a left-handed pitcher make right-handed batters look so bad. The Vols' ace isn't a changeup, movement type of lefty; he buries hard breaking balls in on righties and away from the lefties.

The matchup with Mickey Storey that everyone expected didn't materialize. Mickey had a hard time finding a rhythm, and never did settle into the game. It wouldn't have mattered much, the way we swung the bat on Friday.

Our crowd Friday night was the best in the past few years, although there were a large number of people wearing orange. My wife's first memory is being four years old going with her father to UT football games in Knoxville. Mary Beth's grandmother had season tickets back in the `20's, when Neyland Stadium was just a structure with wooden bleachers. Despite all that, she wore nothing orange and suffered with us in our loss.

Saturday was a rain soaked South Florida winter's day, resulting in the postponement of our second game. So Sunday morning, we faced off again in an early morning doubleheader. I told our players after Friday's loss, that the measure of us as people, and as a team, would be how we handled the bad things. It's easy to play when things are going well. It's a different story when you fall on your face and have to start again.

The old saying is that "losing builds character". I've always said that "losing reveals character". If people start doubting and pointing fingers, your team is in trouble.

We came out Sunday ready to play and things looked as promising as the weather when Chris Salberg struck out the first two UT hitters, but then some control trouble set in and we were down 2-0. Former coach Jim Lyttle was in the dugout and had mentioned in the first inning that the Tennessee pitcher finished his delivery in bad fielding position and would be vulnerable to a bunt. Always ready to steal someone's idea, in the fourth I flashed Alex Fonseca the bunt for a hit sign. As Fons beat the play to first, I thought of my son Jeff's advice that we should constantly bunt, so McBryde followed with his own bunt hit. After a strikeout, Ramirez, Widlansky, and McKenna hit consecutive doubles, and we had a 5-3 lead.

The game became a struggle because we continued to play poorly on defense. All fall and during pre-season, we had been solid defensively, but Friday night and Sunday, we couldn't do much right. The character I was hoping to see revealed was, as we lost the lead but immediately battled back to again go on top. But our defense kept biting us and we ended the game with the tying run stranded at second base.

The second game saw us jump out to an early 6-0 lead thanks to home runs by Alex Silversmith, Will Block, and Anthony Albano. Block usually displays a poker face, but running into the dugout, he was smiling ear to ear. When your first college hit is a bomb, it's time to smile. Albano had extra reason to smile as well. Anthony was out all last season with shoulder surgery, and hadn't hit well all fall. His preseason swings were better, and he looked good Sunday. It's nice to see a good kid rewarded.

Mike McBryde had pulled up lame hitting a double in the opener, and was unavailable for the nightcap, so we wouldn't have our closer. The 6-0 start and Joel Schmal's early dominance on the mound, looked to make Mike's loss a moot point. But the UT guys finally broke through against Schmal, and before you could say, "closer", the score was 6-5.

Will Mann came in and did a great job to shut down the Vols for two and a third innings. It was just what we needed as the tension grew. It was a seven inning game because of their flight. Will got the first out but then an infield hit and a bloop single put runners at first and second. I thought we needed a change in velocity to prevent another cheap hit. The question was, did Brandon Cooney have enough left after pitching nearly three innings and taking a loss in the opener? A strikeout and a groundball later, we had the answer-and our first win.

So, Opening Weekend is over, and what have we learned?

We went toe to toe with the 9th ranked Volunteers from the Southeastern Conference, and probably should have won two out of three. Coach Delmonico called me from the airport and had a lot of nice things to say about our club. Coming from a coach who faces the level of competition his conference presents, his words meant a lot to me.

Albano's performance is very encouraging. It will be a great story if he can come all the way back. I was pleased with the way our hitters responded after Friday's struggles, and am confident that our defensive problems will be resolved.

I was disappointed that Bruce Springsteen and his wife didn't show for any of the games. They were in Palm Beach County, and I had them on the pass list. I guess he doesn't read this stuff after all. KC



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