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How Tennessee Baseball’s Zander Sechrist Elevated From Midweek Staple To Weekend Starter

Zander Sechrist celebrates against Vanderbilt // photo via UT Athletics Kate Luffman

Tennessee left-handed pitcher Zander Sechrist was making his 25th career start at Lindsey Nelson Stadium as the Vols took on Ole Miss in a series rubber match in mid March. But this start wasn’t like the others. It was Sechrist’s second weekend start of his career and his first SEC start.

Getting a pop out on the first pitch of the game was nice, but it was the three-pitch strikeout of Ole Miss two-hitter Andrew Fischer that told Sechrist something about himself.

“Getting Fischer out on three pitches, I mean, I knew that I could do it facing top quality hitters,” Sechrist told RTI.

Sechrist’s last 12 months is synonymous with the sport he plays. Moments of frustration in a game of failure with flashes of success sprinkled in amongst them, boosting his confidence and self belief. It’s how a soft throwing left-handed pitcher went from career midweek starter to the Sunday starter on the nation’s No. 1 team, looking to march back to Omaha for the third time in Sechrist’s four-year career.

Exiting his junior year, Sechrist had a career 1.95 ERA and all of 9.1 SEC innings pitched. As the 2023 season wound down, he told assistant coach Richard Jackson he wanted to play in the Cape Cod League— the nation’s premier college summer league.

Tennessee was losing five of its top six pitchers from the 2023 team, presenting a major opportunity for Sechrist. Going to Cape Cod would give him more experience against top level competition.

“A lot of it is him facing similar competition to what he was going to face down here,” Jackson said of sending Sechrist to Cape Cod. “The previous two years (summers) he went and played in Georgia .. It’s just a different deal when you know you can basically throw fastballs or spin it over the heart of the plate and get somebody out versus being up there and you have to think through it a little bit more like you would on a SEC weekend.”

“I felt like it was necessary because I kind of wanted to show the coaching staff that I could do it and not just in midweeks,” Sechrist said. “I kind of wanted to go to the Cape and show them that I could do it against top quality hitters, against top quality lineups, top quality guys who play everywhere throughout the entire country.”

Things didn’t start well for Sechrist with the Chatham Anglers. He got rocked in his first two outings. But he improved as the summer went on, getting better-and-better and finding more success.

The back half of Cape Cod was one of the first times Sechrist believed he could be a good weekend starter. He figured out the things that worked against midweek opponents but wouldn’t against top competition.

“I just had to adjust,” Sechrist said. “I had to fix stuff up. I felt like I was trying to overthrow too much and I just had to let everything work.”

Sechrist’s finish to summer ball was a confidence boost but Tennessee wasn’t making any decisions about its starting pitching rotation because of what happened in Massachusetts in July.

That role wouldn’t be established until long in the future. Tennessee slotted Sechrist as its Sunday starter in the opening weekend of the season. Things, once again, did not go well as Baylor roughed him up for three runs in two innings.

“Immediately the nerves started, as soon as we got down there. Because I was like, okay, well this is what I’ve been working for, but it’s obviously a different park, a different league,” Sechrist said. “I tried to do too much when I already knew what my pitches did and how they moved and such. But I felt like in my head that I tried too hard and tried to overdo everything.”

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The common denominator when things went wrong for Sechrist was trying to do too much and be more than he is. The left-handed pitcher isn’t going to overpower people with his stuff but that doesn’t mean he can’t get good hitters out. 

“He’s going to be able to spin it,” Jackson said. “If the breaking ball isn’t working he can go left-on-left changeup. He maybe lost sight of that a little bit. He’s kind of come to realize that my bread and butter is that I’m going to jack with your timing and I’m going to throw for strikes. That is just what’s worked for him his whole career. … When he was trying to be perfect it didn’t go well for him.”

Sechrist started once on Sunday between the season opening weekend and the Ole Miss series rubber match. He sent a statement and essentially locked down the Sunday starting spot a week later when he pitched six shutout innings against Georgia.

The Bulldogs combined for 27 runs in the first two games of the series, and their lineup includes the likely National Player of the Year Charlie Condon. Sechrist retired Condon all three times he faced him including a first inning strikeout.

“I wouldn’t say it was personal … I was recruited by (former Georgia coach Scott) Stricklin a little bit, but then he never answered my calls anymore,” Sechrist said with a laugh. “I just felt like it felt right to do it against Georgia because of the history of being from Georgia and all that. But after that outing, I knew … You don’t have to be too perfect. It’s baseball. They might hit it, but who cares? You can still get them out.”

Not everything went well for Sechrist after the Georgia start. His season had more ebbs and flows after that point including back-to-back low points against Florida and Vanderbilt.

“It’s just such a weird game that I make that pitch one week, I strike a dude out on it,” Sechrist said. “I throw the same exact pitch on a two strike count to somebody else and they hit it over the wall.”

The poor outings certainly weren’t good for Sechrist’s confidence but he had what it took to fight through them. It was more about getting back to the drawing board and figuring out what he could do to right the ship.

Jackson says Sechrist’s ability to stay even-keel is nearly as good as anyone’s since Tony Vitello has been at Tennessee.

“That’s what I love about him because all you ask for is consistency in this mostly very difficult sport. He handles it great,” Tennessee Director of Baseball Sports Performance Quentin Eberhardt said.

Sechrist (3-1, 3.90 ERA) enters this weekend’s Knoxville Regional pitching as well as he has in his entire career. He tossed six shutout innings to clinch a share of the SEC Regular Season Championship against South Carolina then followed it up with a six inning, two-run outing against Vanderbilt to send the Vols to the SEC Tournament Championship.

“That was probably one of my favorite outings that he’s had so far because the team had to have it,” Jackson said. “That was big time.”

Baseball is a humbling game. The past 12 months have provided enough reminders that Sechrist isn’t going to get too high now. But his last two outings have inspired a great deal of confidence as the intensity of postseason baseball ratchets up. 

With Tennessee sticking with its usual pitching schedule this weekend, the next time Sechrist takes the mound the Vols will either be attempting to stave off elimination or advance to the Super Regionals for the fourth time in Sechrist’s career.

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