'Sky is the limit' for Vols baseball

Is Tennessee baseball poised to take another step forward? Read about the Diamond Vols as they prepare to open up their 2015 season.

The journey of Tennessee baseball continues with the arrival of bat to ball this weekend as coach Dave Serrano’s fourth team is widely thought of to be his best since his return to Rocky Top.

“I’ve never been more confident in the ability that we have,” Serrano said this week.

When its right, college baseball recruiting works in the understanding of threes. That is, coaches recruit players with the understanding that supreme talent is typically going to move on to professional baseball following a junior season with the senior year used as nothing more than a bargaining chip. While Serrano's first team in 2012 was going 24-31 overall and 8-22 in the SEC, he and his staff were out recruiting a class of players that would provide a bookend to the rebuilding job being done on The Hill.

The 2015 team is culmination of three solid recruiting classes.

“There’s not many teams that we’re going to look across the field and feel like we’re outtalented anymore,” Serrano said.

“The big challenge for this team is feeling like they belong now that they belong as an upper echelon team in the SEC, that they belong as a ranked team in the nation. We need to go respond that way and play that way each and every day.”

In the age of pitch counts and limiting still-developing arms, the bullpen is the key to shutting down the opposition’s bats. Juniors Andy Cox and Andrew Lee together with senior Peter Lenstrohm figure to be the back end of a deep group. Serrano wants to be careful with how often he uses Cox but wants to put the southpaw on the hill “when the game is on the line” as the St. Benedict School product held opposing hitters to a .178 batting average in 2014 while striking out 70 against just 33 walks in 77 1/3 innings.

Working backward, junior Steven Kane and freshman Zach Warren will have middle relief roles while also competing for the occasional start.

In Miami this weekend, Bret Marks has been Serrano’s “most consistent guy” and will take the pearl first against Florida International on Friday night at 7.

“Bret is a weirdo in a good way,” Serrano said of the JUCO product. “and I mean that. He’s going to drive me crazy but boy has a lot of confidence — and that’s a good thing. I would like more guys to have his confidence and his swagger. When he’s not on the mound, he’s going to drive me crazy.”

Powell product Drake Owenby has “done nothing to disappoint us” in fall ball or in the winter. The junior lefty had command issues his first two seasons in Knoxville, walking 42 batters in 52 2/3. Work done since then has Owenby poised to break out.

One of the team’s top pro prospects is also the coach’s son, Kyle Serrano. The sophomore makes his first start of 2015 on Sunday and back-ends a “formidable SEC type rotation.”

Murfreesboro native Hunter Martin “hasn’t been as consistent” but will get every opportunity to return to weekend work. For now, the right-hander will be the top midweek guy and will start versus Tennessee Tech in Wednesday’s home opener.

(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

“We have some flexibility,” Serrano said of his starting pitchers.

As for the offense, experience facing college arms is evident from top to bottom. The eight Volunteers expected to take the field with Cox on Friday have a combined 484 starts under their belt.

A.J. Simcox returns for his third season as Tennessee’s starting shortstop. His double-play partner is fellow Farragut High School alum Nick Senzel, who was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America in ’14. First baseman Nathaniel Maggio and third baseman Jeff Moberg are on the corners.

A case can be made that Tennessee has the best left-handed bat in all of college baseball in left-field starter Christin Stewart. The 6-foot, 205-pounder raked .330 last season with a .927 OPS. Next to him is fellow junior Vincent Jackson with Cumberland University transfer Chris Hall and junior Derek Lance competing to start in right.

The catching job took at hit when senior Tyler Schultz (back) was lost for the season with surgery over the winter. Freshmen Dominick Cammarata and Benito Santiago will back up Houser.

“For me, the sky is the limit,” Serrano said. “There’s no reason this program can’t be making a run to Omaha every year.”

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