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VOL. 39 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 20, 2015

Relevant again? 10 keys to success for UT baseball

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Tennessee Volunteers head coach Dave Serrano’s success this season might depend largely on his son, pitcher Kyle Serrano, a sophomore rated as the No. 16 prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft.

-- Tony Farlow/Four Seam Images Via Ap Images

KNOXVILLE – Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano wasn’t pushing the panic button after his team lost two of three games in their season opening series at Florida International University in Miami last weekend.

Serrano is ever the optimist.

“No matter what happened this weekend, we got to play baseball,” Serrano said after Sunday’s 3-0 loss to FIU. “Now, we can go back and start working on some things that didn’t come out in fall baseball and start tightening up some things that we need to do to be the kind of team we want to be.”

Serrano won’t back down from pushing for the big prize: A trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

UT hasn’t been to the CWS since 2005, when Rod Delmonico was head coach and J.P. Arencibia was starting catcher.

Hard times have followed.

The Vols haven’t returned to the NCAA tournament since 2005. Last year, UT reached the SEC tournament for the first time since 2007, when the Vols went 1-2, didn’t make the NCAA tournament and Delmonico was fired.

UT then spent the next four years in futility with Todd Raleigh as head coach.

Now, Serrano is in his fourth year of rebuilding from the Raleigh years.

Serrano’s first two years at UT were sub-par: 24-31 the first year, 22-30 the next and two eight-win SEC seasons that resulted in sixth-place finishes in the SEC East.

Last year, Serrano’s team showed modest progress, going 31-23, 12-18 in the East for a fifth-place finish, and making an SEC appearance. The Vols were one-and-done in the SEC after a 3-2 loss to eventual national champ Vanderbilt.

Serrano enters the 2015 season with Omaha as the goal. Again.

“Only the coaching staff has been to Omaha, so we’ve got to live off the dream that we are good enough,” Serrano says. “It’s really their mindset more than it is their physical play. They have the physical attributes to be that kind of team. I believe in this team. We have the pieces in place. Now it’s a matter of doing it.”

Can the Vols attain their goal? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here is a lineup – Ten Things to Watch – in the Vols quest for Omaha.

1. The All-American: Left fielder Christin Stewart enters his junior season with lofty expectations after being chosen 2015 preseason All-American by four publications. The last preseason All-American at UT was Cody Hawn in 2010.

Stewart, from Providence Christian Academy in Lawrenceville, Ga., started all 54 games in left field for the Vols and became the 11th player in program history to win the team “Triple Crown” by leading in batting average (.330), home runs (five) and RBIs (39, tied with Nick Senzel).

Stewart’s first-team, All-SEC selection in 2014 was UT’s first since catcher Blake Forsythe in 2009.

There was no slowing down for Stewart after last season. He played seven games with the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Summer League before being selected to the USA Collegiate National Team. He’s the 20th UT player selected to USA team.

Stewart led Team USA in multiple offensive categories last summer, including batting (.383), hits (31), doubles (12), and slugging percentage (.605).

In the FIU series, Stewart hit third in the lineup and went 2 for 8 with two RBIs, a double, and triple. He was hit by a pitch in both the first two games – Friday’s 4-3 loss and Saturday’s 9-2 victory.

2. Senzel’s Season: Ever wonder what would have happened if Georgia hadn’t fired head coach Dave Perno in May of 2013?

Well, Nick Senzel wouldn’t be at UT. Senzel, a freshman All-American last season, signed with Georgia as a senior at Farragut High School in the fall of 2012, but he was granted his release when Perno was fired the next summer.

Serrano was quick to offer and then sign Senzel. Good move. Senzel started 53 of 54 games as a freshman in 2014 – 45 starts as designated hitter and eight at second base. He was the team’s second-leading hitter (.315) behind Stewart, tied with Stewart for the team-high 39 RBIs, and led in on-base percentage (.419).

No doubt Senzel is a big part of the Vols’ plans this year.

Chosen to the All-SEC preseason second team, Senzel got off to a hot start against FIU. He started all three games at second base and went 6 for 12 with an RBI and scored three runs while batting in the No. 4 cleanup spot.

Vol fans can be thankful Senzel landed at UT after the chain of events at Georgia in 2013.

3. Benito Santiago: The UT freshman catcher is the son of former MLB catcher Benito Santiago (1986-2005 in MLB), but he’s not the junior in the family.

The Vols’ Benito Santiago has an older half-brother named Benito Santiago Jr., who played basketball for the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky.

Don’t look for dad or half brother to attend Benito’s games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Santiago, signed by UT out of Coral Springs (Fla.) Christian Academy, isn’t close to his father or half brother and has little contact with them.

UT’s Santiago credits his baseball accolades to his mother, Carmen Miranda, along with grandparents in Florida and his baseball mentor, former MLB catcher Paul Casanova, who taught him baseball in Miami.

“(Casanova) is amazing,” Miranda says. “He’s a friend, mentor, trainer. He’s everything to Benito. When (Benny) committed to Tennessee, one of the first things he did was call (Casanova) and say, ‘Cassie, I did it.’ ”

Santiago started Game 2 against FIU and went 0 for 4 at the plate. UT junior David Houser, who started 30 games last year at catcher, was the starter for the other two games at FIU.

4. The Serranos: One of the most crucial roles of SEC baseball is that of the Sunday starter, and at least for the first weekend series of 2015, sophomore right-hander Kyle Serrano drew the assignment.

Serrano, the coach’s son, went 3 1/3 innings against FIU and gave up two hits, two earned runs, struck out three and walked four.

“That’s too many guys,” Dave Serrano says. “I thought his stuff was good. He just can’t walk guys like that.”

At least he’s walking OK. Kyle Serrano made a quick recovery from fractures to his left ankle and foot sustained in an ATV accident last summer in Alaska. He was playing for the Matsu Miners in the Alaska Summer League, and after the accident, was back for most of fall workouts.

In December, Serrano was listed by Perfect Game USA as the No. 16 prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft in a list of 100 active college-level players.

Kyle is accustomed to such attention.

As a senior at Farragut High, he was rated the No. 35 MLB prospect by Baseball America, and as a college prospect, was the No. 1 player in the state and No. 7 right-hander in the nation.

Serrano’s intentions to play for his father at UT were evident when he set a high signing bonus for MLB teams to match. He was drafted in the 29th round (859th overall) by the Rockies and didn’t sign.

His freshman season at UT was up-and-down – he was 3-3 with a 4.55 ERA in 59 and one-third innings – and he was 0-2 with a 4.18 ERA in Alaska before the ATV accident.

5. Cox’s Arm: Junior left-hander Andy Cox had the best season of any Vol pitcher in 2014, going 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA, 70 strikeouts and 33 walks in 77 and one-third innings.

Tennessee pitcher Andy Cox was the ace of the staff last year with a 5-1 record and 2.44 ERA. He is being depended on this season as one of the Vols’ front-line starters.

-- Cal Sport Media Via Ap Images

Cox was held out of most of fall workouts due to tenderness in his arm, so he wasn’t in the starting rotation at FIU.

However, Cox entered in relief for Kyle Serrano in Game 3 and went 2 2/3 innings and allowed two hits and one earned run. He struck out two and walked two.

Dave Serrano expects Cox to be a weekend starter sometime this season.

“He is one guy I could sit and say he is our Friday guy,” Serrano says. “Unfortunately for Andy, I cannot say which Friday that will happen. He is our Friday guy, but also our most important guy.”

He’s one of most game-tested pitchers on the Vols’ staff.

Cox, who played at Saint Benedict School in Bartlett, tied for UT’s team-high with 21 appearances as a freshman in 2013. He went 2-2 with a 5.29 ERA in 47 and two-third innings.

His arm will be a big factor for the Vols.

6. The Competition: No surprise Vanderbilt is rated No. 1 in the nation, and the SEC is No. 1 in league power ratings, according to CBSsports.com’s composite rankings of the six major preseason college polls (Baseball America, Perfect Game, Coaches’ poll, D1Baseball.com, Collegiate Baseball, National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association).

Vandy’s Coach Tim Corbin consistently has the Commodores in the NCAA title conversation. In Baseball America’s preseason rankings, Vanderbilt opened the season No. 1 – its seventh top-10 preseason ranking in the past 10 years.

No doubt the Vols would like to see those baseball days.

Vanderbilt won the 2014 NCAA championship and is poised for another run this year. The Commodores ended UT’s 2014 season by beating the Vols 3-2 in the first round of the SEC tournament.

UT must run through the gauntlet of SEC powers – and not just rival Vanderbilt.

The SEC has two other teams in CBSSports.com’s composite top-five with Florida at No. 4 and LSU at No. 5. Three other SEC teams are in the top 25 with South Carolina at No. 12, Mississippi State at No. 21, and Ole Miss at No. 22.

Nothing comes easy in SEC baseball. Not for the Vols. Not for anybody.

7. Marks the ‘Weirdo’: So what if Serrano thinks senior right-hander Bret Marks has so much confidence he’s a little off kilter?

Marks is perhaps the Vols’ most improved pitcher from last season, his first with UT after transferring from Wallace State Community College.

“He’s a weirdo in a good way, OK,” Serrano says. “And I mean that. He’s going to drive me crazy, but boy, the guy has a lot of confidence, and that’s a good thing. I would like more guys to have his confidence and swagger.”

Marks had that swagger in the season opener at FIU when he got the starting nod. He went five innings and allowed one hit and no runs with two walks and five strikeouts. UT gave up one earned run in the loss.

Marks, who’s from Roswell, Ga., and played for Blessed Trinity Catholic before junior college, went 3-1 for the Vols last season with a 6.43 ERA.

His pitching took off with the Anchorage Bucs of the Alaska Baseball League. He led the league with 49 strikeouts in 42 and two-third innings, had a fifth-league best 1.89 ERA, and was chosen to the All-Star team.

Serrano called Marks “our most consistent guy throughout the fall and since we have come back (for spring semester).”

8. Two-Way Lee: If anybody can handle a dual role as pitcher and hitter, Andrew Lee can do it.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander from Morristown West High will play both roles this season, and did so last weekend against FIU.

Lee was used as a pinch hitter in Game 1 (he struck out), and pitched the last two innings of Game 3 and allowed one hit and no runs with a strikeout and no walks.

Lee is a feel-good story.

A three-sport athlete at Morristown West, Lee had a 0.28 ERA his senior year before suffering an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. He could only hit during his freshman year at UT, and played in 25 games with 18 starts primarily at designated hitter. He hit .187.

During the 2014 season, Lee was used as a pitcher, and only had six at-bats. He went 4-4 with a 3.90 ERA in 57 and two-third innings.

Lee led the Cape Cod League in hitting last summer with a .333 average, while starting seven games on the mound (2-3, 4.21 ERA).

It was enough for Serrano to declare Lee a pitcher/hitter this season.

9. Local Flavor: For those into area high school baseball, UT offers plenty to see aside local stars other than Kyle Serrano, Senzel, and Lee.

Former Knoxville Powell High pitcher Drake Owenby got the start in Game 2 at FIU and was the winning pitcher.

Owenby, a junior left-hander, went six innings, gave up three hits and no runs, struck out seven and walked none. A great start for Owenby.

Junior shortstop A.J. Simcox, a junior from Farragut High, returns as the starter at shortstop. Simcox is the son of former UT assistant coach Larry Simcox, who now runs a baseball academy in Knoxville.

A.J. Simcox started all three games at FIU and went 3 for 10 with an RBI and scored a run.

Senior Parker Wormsley (Webb School) is a utility player, while redshirt freshman Eric Freeman (Farragut High) is making a comeback after arm surgery.

Former Murfreesboro Blackman High right-hander Hunter Martin started 12 games (second-most on the team) as a true freshman last season and went 4-4 with a 3.24 ERA. He’s another key arm this year.

10. Right-field Options: Look for the Vols to give former Bearden High standout Derek Lance and transfer Chris Hall of Cumberland University/Lebanon Friendship Christian School to vie for the job in right field.

Each started all three games of the opening series – splitting time between right field and designated hitter.

Hall was a late signee in July of 2014 as a transfer from Cumberland University. He hit leadoff most of 2014 as Cumberland won its third consecutive NAIA World Series title. He hit .392 for the season and scored 75 runs in 68 games (67 starts) and was chosen second-team NAIA All-American.

As a freshman, Hall hit the team-high .395 and was Mid-South Conference freshman of the year.

Lance, a junior, played in 32 games for UT last season with 21 starts. He hit .291 and had a .380 on-base percentage.

It wasn’t a great start for Lance or Hall at FIU.

Hall went 0 for 11 and struck out five times (three in the opener).

Lance, batting second in the lineup, went 1 for 13, scored four runs, and struck out twice. He was DH for Games 1 and 3 and played right in Game 2.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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