It's Shao-time: Frosh makes mark with arm and bat

As a raw freshman, Mt. Juliet's Stephen Shao has sparked Vanderbilt this season with both his hitting and his pitching. As a left fielder, he's batting .333; as a hurler, he's 3-0 with one save. In between final exams on Wednesday Shao talked about being a two-way player, and about the crucial upcoming three-game road series vs. Tennessee.

NASHVILLE-- It's exam week on the Vanderbilt campus, and baseball players like freshman Stephen Shao have had to learn to make swift, seamless transitions between studies and ball practices. Under the dizzying pressures of finals week, student-athletes must learn quickly how to focus on both the playing field and the classroom, without neglecting either.

Somehow, dual roles have always seemed to come easy for Shao, the lefthander from nearby Mt. Juliet. Originally recruited to Vanderbilt for his pitching prowess, Shao has recently demonstrated the ability to swing the bat and play a little outfield as well. Though seeing only spot duty thus far, he has made his presence felt.

His name is correctly pronounced SHAY-oh, but most everyone, including his Vanderbilt teammates, wants to mispronounce it "Show" (rhymes with "wow"-- which, if he continues to handle both roles with such composure, might be apropos).

Shao's ability to compete as both pitcher and hitter at the college level comes as little surprise to those who saw him play at Mt. Juliet High School-- as a junior he hit .414 with 7 homers and 52 RBI, while amassing a 9-2 record and a 1.78 ERA as a pitcher. Still, Vandy head coach Tim Corbin needed a little convincing.

Facing a severe shortage of pitchers last season, the Vanderbilt staff made the Mt. Juliet product part of last year's 16-man recruiting class, a group that was heavy on hurlers. Somewhere during the recruiting process, Shao let it be known to Corbin that he'd also like to give outfield a shot on days when he was resting his arm.

"Coach said, we'll just watch you over the summer and see how you progress," Shao recalls. "When we got into the fall practices, I asked Coach if I could try to do both. It worked out pretty well, so I felt confident I could do it."

As a pitcher, Corbin has had the luxury of bringing the freshman southpaw along slowly, mostly in middle relief roles in midweek games-- although he's made several recent appearances in SEC games. He's been credited with three wins, no losses and a save, though his ERA has ballooned up to 4.53 after a rocky appearance last weekend against Mississippi State.

"Pitching in college is a lot different than playing in high school," laughs Shao. "In high school you can throw in the mid-to-high 80's and get the ball by players, up in the strike zone. They'll chase a lot of stuff, like breaking balls and off-speed stuff.

"Your Division I athlete, anything that's thrown up in the zone is going to get hit hard, if not over the fence. Breaking stuff, they're going to lay off of it, if it's not a decent pitch."

Three weeks ago, the Commodores were suffering through a stretch of anemic hitting, and Corbin was searching high and low for some extra pop to insert into the lineup. Riding a hunch, he awarded Shao his first start in left field for a Sunday home game against Arkansas. Shao responded by going 2-for-4, with a pair of doubles and 2 RBI. The following weekend, he started every game in left, and bagged a hit in all three games.

Shao learns from the coaching staff shortly before each game where he can expect to be used. "They always give me a heads-up before the game, to let me know whether I'll be playing outfield or pitching," he said. He's not had to do both... yet.

After last weekend's sweep of Mississippi State, the Commodores are back in contention for an SEC Tournament berth. With only nine SEC games left in the season, six of them on the road, every pitch is magnified, every outing crucial. The upcoming weekend road series at Tennessee could be make-or-break for a Vandy squad hovering around .500 in league play.

The rivalry between Vanderbilt and Tennessee is big for fans, but Shao, who grew up in middle Tennessee as a Vanderbilt fan, sees it as no bigger than any other SEC series.

"That series means a lot to us," he said, "but I don't think we take any SEC series for granted. No one series is bigger than any other. We just say, this is what we've got this weekend, this is what we've got to do to win on Friday night. Then after that's over, we just set it aside, and it's on to the next one.

"Obviously the games are very big. The whole conference can flip-flop in one weekend. It's such a tough conference, probably the toughest in the nation. Anything can happen in these next couple of weeks."

Little-known fact: Shao's paternal grandfather was Chinese, which makes Stephen one-fourth Chinese. Looking for a nickname to hang on him, his teammates have dubbed him "Shao Ming", a take-off on current NBA sensation Yao Ming.

Shao, meanwhile, wouldn't mind helping start a baseball dynasty at Vanderbilt-- just call it the Shao dynasty.

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