Tennessee opened a new baseball season with a new coach, new uniforms and a new Drew Steckenrider.
Fans knew about the coach ( Dave Serrano) and maybe even the new, more traditional uniforms. But half the fans in Lindsey Nelson Stadium were probably Googling "Drew Steckenrider" midway through his first at-bat after he propelled a foul ball way past the left-field fence Friday afternoon.
Who is this guy?
The answer almost requires a run-on sentence. He's a 6-foot-5, 230-pound switch-hitting junior pitcher/outfielder/first baseman from Lawrenceville, Ga., whom Serrano is counting on to lead off his pitching rotation and bat fourth in the lineup. He's also the same Drew Steckenrider who hit .192 in 52 at-bats and compiled a 6.12 earned-run average in 32 innings last season. The only
way he could have had a lower profile was if former coach Todd Raleigh had placed him in witness protection.
And that was the best of Steckenrider's two previous seasons with the Vols. As a freshman in 2010, he hit a home run in his first at-bat, then went 0-for-14 for the rest of the season.
He matched his college-career home run total in the eighth inning with a solo home run over the right-center field fence, which capped UT's scoring in a 7-1 victory over Northern Illinois. He also pitched four shutout innings and hit the ball hard enough for two other home runs — the mammoth first-inning foul ball and a sixth-inning, run-scoring double that struck the center-field wall with such force, Serrano credited the new padding with possibly preventing a dent in the fence.
The hitting display didn't shock Serrano. Unlike the fans, he had a preseason's worth of practice to acclimate himself to his good fortune.
"We saw some things in the fall ... 'where did this guy come from?' " Serrano said. "Because we had seen the numbers. And the numbers with the ability just doesn't stack up.
"At times he has to be motivated a little bit, but he has really opened up. Players say that his demeanor is so much better than in the past. And I think he is having fun. Sometimes, it takes guys time to grow up."
Based on the season opener, the growth process has been abetted by an expanded role.
"I think it's just the way they used me (last season), not getting many at-bats," Steckenrider said. "This year, I've been working on both the whole time. I think (last year's coaching staff) felt it would be better for me to pitch."
Serrano thinks it would be better if he does both. And neither the coach nor the player is sure which role better suits his talent.
"It depends on the day," Steckenrider says when you ask if he's a better hitter or pitcher.
Says Serrano: "When you have a chance to throw 95 to 97 miles per hour, it's hard to say he's not (best) on the mound. But he shows some really ridiculous power at times.
"He's as good as many good players I've been around in my years of coaching. He's got ability that you just have to be born with."
Steckenrider apparently appreciates that Serrano isn't limiting his opportunities to use all that ability. He gave his coach the game ball afterward.
The hitter/pitcher deserved a game bat and ball.