COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Productive hitters have become a common theme with Tennessee Tech baseball over the last few seasons. Players like AJ Kirby-Jones and Chad Oberacker are still fresh in the minds of the Golden Eagle faithful.
This season, fans are witnessing another player -- Zach Stephens -- putting up a pace halfway through his sophomore season that should be just as memorable.
"We knew Zach was a really good hitter when we were recruiting him," head coach Matt Bragga said. "We kept telling him that there was a chance that AJ could get drafted and you might be able to step into that role right away and that we believed he could fill the void left by AJ."
"I feel pretty good about the season I'm having so far," Stephens said. "I'm seeing the ball better and I'm just trying to make things happen out there."
A native of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., Stephens joined the TTU baseball team in 2011 and did not waste any time in making an impact on the team. He began his career with a 10-game hitting-streak and finished with a team-leading 49 RBI and 10 home runs, en route to being named to the OVC's all-Freshman Team and earning Freshman All-American honors.
Through 31 games this season, Stephens has put together quite the portfolio thus far as he is leading the Golden Eagles in several offensive categories including batting average, hits, home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, on base percentage and total bases.
If a player is leading his team in all of these categories one could not deny that he is having a good season, but to say that he is in the top-20 nationally of all the said categories would both be shocking and true at the same time.
"Heading into the season, you don't really expect these kinds of stats from any kind of player, not saying that they aren't capable of it," Bragga said. "Stephens is just a really good hitter and it doesn't surprise me that he is doing what he is doing."
In terms of power, Zach Stephens is at the top of the heap as he leads the nation with 14 home runs this season. Through the first 14 games of the season, Stephens had a modest four home runs, but in the last 17 games he has recorded 10 more dingers, including a stretch where he homered in five straight games.
Along with his home runs, Stephens also ranks first in the nation in slugging percentage (.917), total bases (100.0) and on base percentage (.566).
The current power that Stephens is showing might remind TTU fans of what Kirby-Jones used to provide when he donned the purple and gold just two seasons ago. An All-American and current member in the Oakland A's farm system, Kirby-Jones currently holds several of the season and career records when it comes to power, including home runs in a season (26) and a career (51).
"Zach and AJ have a lot of similarities whether it be their swings or their demeanor at the plate," Bragga said. "I think Zach has a chance to be a better hitter than AJ, but in terms of raw power they are pretty much the equal of each other."
Currently closing in on Kirby-Jones' season record of 26 home runs, Stephens has nearly reached the halfway point of the career mark with 24 career home runs in just 84 games.
The home runs will always catch people's attention, but what is also striking is Stephens' poise in the batter's box. His .468 batting average ranks second in the nation only behind Texas-Pan American's Roger Bernal.
Oberacker, who batted .452 in 2010, is the player who can approach what Stephens has done this season. Oberacker, who is also in the Oakland A's farm system, finished his career batting .374 and is TTU's all-time hits leader with 253 career hits.
"It's an honor to be mentioned along with AJ and Chad," Stephens said. "I got to see AJ play a few times and I played with Chad last season so I definitely saw how good they were."
"As a pure hitter, Zach and Chad are both pretty similar," Bragga said. "Oberacker obviously had more speed and batted from the left side of the plate, but they are both pretty close to each other when it comes to hitting."
Stephens' 37 runs batted in ranks 10th in the nation, while his 51 hits puts him at 16th in the nation. In 27 games, Stephens has recorded at least one hit this season, including 19 multi-hit games. He has also driven in at least two runs in a game this season on 11 occasions, including a career-high five RBI against Murray State (4/1).
The Golden Eagles resume Ohio Valley Conference play this weekend as they host SIU Edwardsville in a three-game series.
Game one of the series is set for Friday at 6 p.m., with game two slated for Saturday at 2 p.m. and game three set for Sunday at 1 p.m. Admission is free to all of Tech's regular season home games.