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The Inside Pitch: Tennessee

Can Knoxville, Tennessee become the hotbed of college baseball in the SEC?

If new Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano has anything to do with that, it will happen under his watch. The Vols baseball program has had some tough times over the last couple of years. They finished the 2011 season with a 25-29 record and a 7-23 SEC record for a last place finish.

“The focus of the fall for us was seeing the talent we have for the upcoming season.” said Serrano. “We implemented our system this fall with the players learning it well. We want squads to come into Knoxville and when they leave town say that Tennessee squad plays hard nosed baseball.”

Everyone knows the saying in baseball to be strong up the middle. The Vols will be your model for this statement in 2012 with most of their best players up the middle of the diamond.

Leading the infield will be senior shortstop Zach Osborne, the top returning hitter for the Vols. He finished last year with a .330 batting average with a homer and 19 RBI. He also chipped in with five stolen bases in eight attempts. “He brings in some great experience at the shortstop spot for us and will help solidify our defense,” said Serrano.

Freshman Will Maddox expected to join Osborne at second base. Maddox is one of your typical guys in the Vols system that Serrano says “makes things happen.” The 5’11 middle infielder was impressive throughout the fall. He ended up fracturing his thumb near the end of fall, but is expected to be ready for the start of the season in February.

Behind the plate they have a pair fighting it out for the starting spot in senior Wes Walker and sophomore Ethan Bennett.

Walker saw limited time in 2011 appearing in 20 games (five starts) hitting only .125 with two RBI in 16 official at-bats. Serrano was very impressed with Walker’s catch and throw ability while he was able to handle the pitching staff well during fall practice.

Bennett had decent numbers last year as a freshman hitting .262 with a team high seven homers and 25 RBI in 40 games (36 starts). Serrano believes his bat will get him in the lineup somehow in the spring.

The centerfield position seems in the grasp of junior Chris Fritts. Serrano was impressed with Fritts this fall.“He is not your prototypical centerfielder, but plays with a hardnosed toughness that will help us in the outfield.” Fritts struggled with the bat last spring hitting .227 in 45 games but was named a 2010 SEC All-Freshman Team selection after hitting .270 with three homers.

The real key to Tennessee this year will be the pitching staff. “We are only as good as our pitching will take us this year. They will need to carry us through the tough SEC.” said Serrano.

They will be led by junior RHP/OF Drew Steckenrider. He spent 2011 working out of the pen making 16 relief appearances while starting three games. He accumulated a 2-0 record and a 6.12 ERA in 32.1 innings of work.

Serrano stated, “Drew has big-time ability to be an elite pitcher for us this spring. He touched 97 mph in the fall but was sitting 92-95 mph. The biggest issue with Drew is making sure he is able to be consistent with his control.” He is expected to see time as a designated hitter when he is not on the mound. Last year, he hit .192 in 52 at-bats while driving in four runs.

Senior LHP TJ Thornton could fill one of the weekend spots. He went 1-1 with a 3.25 ERA in 17 appearances (three starts). It will be a step up for Thornton. He hasn’t been a regular starter since he was the ace of the Indian River Community College staff in 2010. He went 6-5 with a 3.83 ERA in a team-high 77.2 innings.

The other spot in the weekend rotation is a battle between junior RHP Zack Godley and freshman David Horne. Godley made 28 appearances last year going 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA. The biggest issue with David Horne getting a key role on the squad according to Serrano is him “getting adjusted” to the college lifestyle.

Serrano boasted “I took this Tennessee job with one goal in mind: bring this team to Omaha.” The road to Omaha kicks off on February 17th when Northern Illinois visits town to start a three game series. Other highlights in the schedule are participating in the Houston College Classic and visits from 2011 CWS participants Florida and Vanderbilt.

Photos courtesy of Tennessee Media Relations