Former Minnesota Twins manager Cal Ermer, who spent much of his life living in East Tennessee, often summed up the beauty of baseball in three simple words.
Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano (UT photo)
“Hope springs eternal.”
Those three words aren’t Tennessee’s rallying cry heading into the third season under Coach Dave Serrano, but that’s the vibe in and around the program.
Serrano’s Vols have taken their lumps during a painful rebuilding process the past two seasons, and the coach who has been to the College World Series with three different programs said Tennessee’s time to win is now.
Another highly touted signing class has bolstered a roster that needed all the help it could get when Serrano returned to Knoxville three years ago, leaving a locked-and-loaded Cal State Fullerton roster behind him in hopes of returning Tennessee to the national-title-contending program it was when he served as the Vols’ pitching coach in the mid-1990s.
“I have high hopes for more than I ever have in my three years here,” Serrano said earlier this wee. “A lot of that has to do with the players we have, and how they’ve developed and grown up; also how my staff recruited. And I really feel for the first time that Tennessee baseball will be relevant again in the SEC.
“I am not promising a SEC championship. I’m not promising national championships. But I’m not saying we can't do that.”
The main nucleus of Tennessee’s offense — including senior Scott Price, the SEC’s leading returning hitter — is back from last season, and it’s been supplemented with power and speed in several spots.
Pitching, though, has been Tennessee’s biggest problem the past couple of years.
Vols infielder Will Maddox (UT photo)
Serrano’s solution to that has come on the recruiting trail.
Of the four pitchers scheduled to start on the mound this weekend for the Vols, only one — senior Nick Williams — has ever thrown a pitch in a college game.
Highly touted true freshmen Kyle Serrano (Dave’s son) and Hunter Martin and big sophomore Andrew Lee — a Knoxville-area native who was only allowed to hit last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery — are long on talent but extremely short on experience.
In other words, Dave Serrano expects his veteran-laden offense to carry the load until his talented pitchers take a few lumps.
That doesn’t mean the coach expects his young pitchers to struggle too much or for too long, though.
"We will probably rely on the offense early,” Serrano said. “I think our offense is going to be a very strong weapon throughout the year. It’s a tough lineup to get through for our pitchers, and I think they have grown up a lot trying to go through them. We have a lot of left-handed hitters, a lot of guys who can run the bases and guys who can hit the ball over the fence.
“I’m just very proud at how these guys have developed. There was a plan in mind. They got their ears pinned back a little bit as freshmen. But I can no longer look across the field from our dugout and see a bunch of boys playing a bunch of men in the SEC. Our boys have grown into men in a very short order.”
But those freshmen pitchers have to turn into men sometime this season. The SEC is again expected to be the nation’s toughest conference by a country mile.
"I think we're going to have challenges no matter who we start with (on the mound), but great question,” Serrano said when asked about his young arms. “These young men are going to have to overcome some adversity. I've always said in recruiting that their biggest leap in their baseball careers is from high school to Division I baseball. It will be a bigger jump than when they go from Division I to professional baseball.
Vols outfielder Christin Stewart (UT photo)
“There’s going to be some anxiety on that part, but I'm confident because the fact that they have faced a good lineup each and every day in our intersquad games and for the most part, they've had good outings against them. It's been competitive, the squad games. I feel like they've passed the test, so to speak. There will be another test when another color uniform walks in our stadium, that's always going to be, whether you're a freshman or a senior, there's going to be different emotions that go on with that.
“The sooner our guys can realize it's about our team — it's not about them, it's about our team — I think it's going to be a strength of (ours). We're going to be a very unselfish group, we're going to sacrifice for one another. That's going to be the strength and the core as we move forward with this group. It is a very close-knit group that believes in one another and wants to succeed for one another.”
Several of Tennessee’s offensive veterans — especially Price and versatile junior infielder Will Maddox — will be expected to lead the team, especially early in the season, and Serrano didn’t deny that.
Maddox — a high-school classmate and good friend of Tennessee All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson — was the Vols’ everyday second baseman as a freshman before moving to third last season, and he could play both spots this season. Price, the Vols’ everyday first baseman last season, has now shuffled primarily to the outfield in order to get big, powerful freshman Nathaniel Maggio a shot at first.
Price will join talented sophomores Christin Stewart and Vincent Jackson to form what Serrano hopes will be one of the league’s most potent outfield trios.
"Well, Scott Price to me is probably the best hitter in the SEC, and I'll say that bar none,” Serrano said. “He's the top returning hitter (based on average) that's returned in the SEC. I don't think he’s getting enough credit from the national media, and that's probably because he’s on a lower-tier team in the past in the SEC. But I see him every single day and I know what umpires told me last year when we played in the SEC. All the guy does is square up a baseball every time. We expect the same throughout the year. We're going to put him in a different spot. We're going to put him in the leadoff spot this year, kind of get out of the gate with a bang, and it's been an exciting spot to see him in. He starts a lot of games off with doubles off the wall or doubles in the gap, which will be exciting for us.
“As for Will, I'll say this about Will: Will is probably the hardest-nose player in the SEC. All you’ve got to do is come out and watch a game or practice. He's going to be the dirtiest guy on the field, he's going to be a guy that you recognize because he has given everything that he has on each and every pitch. It's not going to always be perfect, but you're still proud of him just because how hard he plays the game each and every day, and he's going to give you his all every day here at Tennessee.”
Serrano said Vols sophomore shortstop A.J. Simcox had a big offseason, and the coach is also excited about a number of his newcomers. In addition to Maggio, the coach singled out former Knoxville Farragut High School infield star Nick Senzel and third baseman Jordan Rodgers from Memphis as freshmen who should provide a spark.
The Vols are set to open at 4 p.m. EST on Friday against Nebraska-Omaha, and they’re play Purdue at 4 p.m. on Saturday before playing both teams in a Sunday doubleheader scheduled to start at noon.
Serrano said anyone stopping by Lindsey Nelson Stadium this weekend or sometime later this season will “like what they see.”
“We are a good looking, athletic, physical group,” the coach said. “There’s a method behind that — to be in the SEC, you have to be physical. I think we fit that mold now.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247