March 18, 2010
BY GRANT RAMEY
The Tennessee roster lists Drew Steckenrider as an outfielder. When the freshman takes the mound, though, the radar gun tells a different story.
After starting his collegiate career as a switch-hitting outfielder, Steckenrider was brought in to help an injury-plagued bullpen. He's responded by throwing strikes clocked at 94 miles per hour.
"I like both (pitching and being a position player) really," he said. "The coaches told me before Christmas break that I would be pitching some, and I told coach (pitching coach Jason) Beverlin that I wanted to throw from the mound."
Steckenrider has filled the void left on the mound in his two appearances -- a 13-8 win over Marshall on Sunday and a 13-2 win over Morehead State on Wednesday. In a combined three innings of relief work, Steckenrider has allowed only two hits and one earned run.
"When you talk about talent, he's the guy that comes to mind," Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh said. "He's big, he can throw, he can hit, and he may not be hitting as much as he wants right now, but he's got unbelievable power."
His power, including a pinch-hit home run against Xavier in his first collegiate plate appearance, has transformed into velocity and success on the mound.
Steckenrider retired the first four batters he saw in his college debut before giving up his first career hit, a first-pitch home run to Marshall's Kurt Lipton.
"It was definitely good to get that out of my system," Steckenrider said. "I wasn't really worried about (giving up the home run). I've always been told not to worry about it, just focus on the next batter."
Giving up home runs can be expected from a freshman, but his pitch speed caught his teammates off guard.
"When he threw against Marshall on Sunday night, it was raining, cold, and he came out throwing in the 90's, I looked down (the dugout) and our guys couldn't believe it," Raleigh said. "I told them this kid could throw."
An arm injury slowed Steckenrider's senior season at Greater Atlanta Christian school. As a junior his 7-1 record included a 1.17 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 36 innings.
"When we recruited him, at one time, he was the 12th best prospect in the country last year--that's high school and college," Raleigh said. "Now, I think half the Major League teams want him as a pitcher and the other half wants him as a position player."
Similar injuries to his teammates have gotten him on the mound earlier in the season than his coaches expected.
"Really, this happened when we lost a tough game to Western Kentucky a week ago," Raleigh said. "We had a two-run lead, bottom of the ninth, two outs and we didn't have Will (Locante), we didn't have Matt (Ramsey), and at that point we said, `We can't get caught in that situation.'
"When you're talking about one of the best arms in the country, you have to get him out there. Not a lot of guys come out of the outfield throwing 95 miles per hour."
The Vols will continue to rely on Steckenrider, both in the outfield and from the mound, as they begin SEC play against No. 16 South Carolina on Friday.
"There's no lost confidence (when pitching in the SEC)," Steckenrider said. "I have to go out there and do my thing, just throw. It will definitely be interesting, and hopefully I'll get on the mound a good bit."
There's no hesitation from his coaches, either.
"He's throwing strikes," Raleigh said. "He's certainly not awed by the situation or intimidated, so I have no hesitation.
"The way he's throwing right now, we have to get him out on the mound."