JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Austin Kearney arrives at the Silver Diamond Baseball Complex on game days knowing that his name will frequently not be listed in the starting lineup – he has started eight times in Carson-Newman's first 37 games. It is not a slight to the sophomore's ability rather it is a testament to the trust the coaching staff has in his ability.
The Powell, Tenn. native has 43 total at-bats in 2016, 13 of which have come in his main role this year as a pinch-hitter.
"I'm going to tell you that's one of the toughest roles in sports is being able to come off the bench," Carson-Newman assistant coach Skyler Barnett said. "Not knowing when you're name is going to be called is difficult. We call Kearney 'The Hit Man'. It's the nickname he's been given. He's always had a stone cold approach at the plate. He never really gets nervous. He's been Mr. Reliable for us."
His dependability was on full display in game two of a three-game series against South Atlantic Conference foe Newberry on April 2. The Eagles lost game one of the series and entered the ninth inning down by two runs. Kearney was summoned from the bench to lead-off the frame and lined a 1-0 offering into left field for a base hit. He was promptly run for and just like that his work was done in two pitches and less than 60 seconds of a three-hour and 12-minute game.
Carson-Newman scored three runs in the inning and won the contest in walk-off fashion thanks to a base hit from fellow sophomore Cade Snapp (Seymour, Tenn.).
Kearney picked up the start in the final game of the series later in the day and went 2-for-2 with a walk and a run batted in as the Eagles took two out of three games against the Wolves to position themselves in fourth-place in the SAC standings.
It was a day where Carson-Newman appeared to be heading towards the bottom of the table in the conference but a clutch single by a player that ranks 11th on the roster in at-bats ignited a season-altering moment.
"It's huge," Kearney said in a post-game interview that saw him doused in water and cheese whiz. "We finally got something going our way. Beating Newberry, one of the top teams in our conference and us finally bouncing up is really big for us."
The Knoxville Cathloic product is hitting .326 this season with a home run and eight RBIs. He admits that his job is difficult but he embraces the opportunity to make an impact on a talented roster.
"It's an extremely hard position to be in," Kearney said. "The whole time you have to be focusing on the bench. There are some pro guys that do it and it's a really tough job. You just have to stay really focused and that's what I've been doing all year."
During his freshman year, Mr. Reliable was anything but consistent as he notched just eight hits in 34 at-bats and drove in five runs. In his first 12 games, Kearney was trying to adjust as he had just two knocks in his first 21 plate appearances.
Kearney found his stroke at the end of the season learning from a team that had five seniors leading the way as he finished the season 6-for-13 at the plate in his final six games of the season. The right-handed hitter believes that his time playing for a summer team between his rookie and sophomore campaigns aided his maturity at the plate.
The Volunteer State native does not have a specific routine that he goes through in a sport where players are known for their superstitions and rituals, but Kearney has learned how to adapt on a game-to-game basis.
"As soon as the game starts you never really know when your name will be called," Kearney said. "I have no idea, coach just looks at me and I have to go get in the box. Sometimes I get to know an inning or two beforehand where I can go down and get stretched and get loose to focus on which pitcher I will be facing. I talk to the other coaches trying to figure out what the pitchers are throwing."
The second-year player called being in the starting lineup in those eight games a special privilege. With 11 guaranteed games remaining on Carson-Newman's 2016 schedule, a specialist off of the bench can be a difference maker. Late in the game with the game on the line, the Eagles can call on Kearney to the hit man.
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