By Steve Williams

Dave Serrano called Tennessee’s qualifying for the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament this season a “huge step” for the program.

I call it a baby step for the young Vols.

Sure, it was UT’s first trip to Hoover since 2007, but when 12 of the 14 teams in the league get in the tourney, making the field as a No. 11 seed is not a big deal in my book.

Had Tennessee beaten Vanderbilt last Tuesday in what amounted to a play-in game to the double-elimination portion of the tournament, then we would have had something to cheer about.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, Serrano’s club broke Rule No. 5 in The Book of Unwritten Baseball Rules, published by Baseball Digest years ago – Never make the first or third out at third base. Tennessee committed that cardinal sin in the top of the ninth inning and was eliminated by the Commodores 3-2.

The Vols didn’t break Rule No. 5 the classic way, like trying to stretch a double into a triple. No, their bad was even worse.

UT had gotten off to a great start in the ninth when freshman Nick Senzel doubled and was awarded third base on a balk. Leading by one, Vandy brought in its infield. That strategy paid off.

Taylor Smart hit a chopper down the line and third baseman Xavier Turner gloved it and tagged out Senzel before he could get back to the bag.

Nick, here’s your off-season homework assignment: Copy Rule No. 5 a thousand times. The same for you Serrano and third base coach Greg Bergeron.

Believe it or not, it got worse.

Smart was picked off first base by right-hander Carson Fulmer.

Let’s take a timeout right here to check to see if Carson is related to Phillip Fulmer. I mean, after all, although I don’t believe it really exists, we all have heard of the “Fulmer curse” that’s been cast on UT athletics since he was fired by Mike Hamilton in 2008.

This felt like a curse.

Serrano should have taken blame for the costly base-running mistake at third but didn’t in his post-game comments. Instead, the head coach said, “Today was a microcosm about what our season has been about. We have a group of guys that has fought extremely hard, but we just keep doing some things to get in our own way. The ninth inning was probably an example of what we have had to live with all year long.”

Coach ‘em up better, Dave. Did your third base coach have Senzel in a safe position in case there was a shot down the line?

Despite the early exit, Serrano said it was important to get the feel of practicing and playing on the field at Hoover. That could prove to be beneficial for his young team, which Serrano said will return “85 to 90 percent” of its players next season. There were only two seniors in the starting lineup versus Vandy.

Serrano still held out hope that his team might get selected for a NCAA regional berth. Selections were to have been announced Monday.

Tennessee had a 31-23 overall record and was competitive for much of the season, although it was swept by ETSU in mid-week games and even lost to UNC-Asheville late in the season, a blow to its RPI.. The Vols also were only 12-18 in conference play, losing several close games.

If baseball had the equivalent of college basketball’s NIT, that’s where this Tennessee team would belong.

The out at third might have been the knockout blow, but I remember another time on the diamond when a Tennessee team didn’t get in a run from third that hurt much, much worse.

The Lady Vols already had one win in the bag in the best-of-three NCAA softball championship series in 2007. Monica Abbott, the best pitcher in the history of the sport, was blanking Arizona in a scoreless Game 2. UT just needed a run. It had the bases loaded in the fifth with no outs and its 2-3-4 hitters coming up.

But Tennessee failed to score. It wasn’t because of a base-running blunder. Arizona’s defense stepped up big. The Lady Wildcats won 1-0 in 10 innings that night and claimed the crown the next evening with a 5-0 victory.

Had Tennessee won Game 2 and the title – now I would have called that a “huge step” for a program.