Ninth ranked Arkansas came into to Tuscaloosa sporting a sparkling 1.68 team ERA, and left with an even more sparkling 1.59, allowing only three earned runs in the 27 innings played in the three games. The reason is two fold. First and foremost they have a deep and talented pitching staff that all seem to throw from 92-97 miles per hour fastballs with movement, backed up to sliders that bite, and change-ups that fool hitters. Secondly their team defense is among the worst in the SEC with a fielding percentage of .961. The strong pitching arms dominated on Thursday and Friday, winning by scores of 3-1 and 6-0. The ugly defense reared its head on Saturday as the Tide won 5-0, with only two runs being earned, helped along by five Razorback errors. The combination of excellent pitching and poor defense leads to very few runs that are scored against them are earned.
Thursday's first game was played in the cold and drizzle and televised by ESPNU. Hog starter Barrett Austin and a stable of relievers, four were used, combined to baffle and bamboozle Tide hitters all night, allowing only four singles. 'Bama starter Charley Sullivan pitched five innings, allowing eight hits and three runs. Only one run was earned. Arkansas scored once in the second on a walk, sacrifice bunt and three singles. The third single by Joe Serrano plated the run, but further damage was avoided when left fielder Andrew Miller threw a perfect strike to catcher Brett Booth to nail Willie Schwanke at the plate. The Hog's scored two more in the fifth as the Tide uncharacteristically committed two errors. 'Bama showed some life in the late innings, getting a lead off single by Georgie Salem to start the eighth inning, followed by a one out walk to Ben Moore, but could not advance them any further. In the ninth Kyle Overstreet worked a 14 pitch leadoff walk, and Miller reached on a two out walk, but the Tide could not plate either runner. Salem, Booth, Miller and Cameron Carlisle collected one hit each on the night. Following Sullivan, Keaton Haack pitched a scoreless sxith inning, despite loading the bases with one out on a single and two walks. However Haack recovered to strike out the final two batters. Sophomore left-hander Taylor Guilbeau pitched three very impressive innings. allowing three hits and striking out one and allowing no runs.
Friday nights game featured much more of the same, as Razorback righty Ryan Stanek toed the rubber. Stanek is considered by most as one the top pitchers in the SEC and is regarded as a potential top 10 pick in this Junes Major League Baseball draft. He quickly showed why, striking out five batters in the first two innings. When Arkansas scored two runs in each of the second and third inning, everyone pretty much knew this one was over. In the second a Tide error, a swinging bunt single, a traditional bunt single and a sacrifice fly scored the runs. The Hog's added two in the third on three hits and a walk. Tide starter Jonathan Keller pitched six innings allowing seven hits, one walk and striking out seven. Of the four runs he allowed, only two were earned. Arkansas added single runs in the seventh and eighth innings to put the game out of reach. Jay Shaw, Mitch Greer and Mike Oczypok combined to pitch the final three innings for the Tide.
Needing to salvage a win on Saturday starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull continued his outstanding pitching of late, leading the Tide to their 5-0 win. Turnbull pitched seven scoreless innings, stretching his scoreless streak to 29 and 2/3 innings over four SEC games. Turnbull allowed five hits, walked two and struck out four. Justin Kamplain pitched the eighth innings, striking out two and not allowing a hit. Freshmen closer pitched the ninth, recording three ground ball outs.
Much as he has all season, senior leader Brett Booth led the offense, which exploded for 12 hits, after collecting only eight combined in the first two games. Booth set the tone early, blasting his third home run of the season to lead off the second inning. The Tide added a run in the third when Salem lead off with a single, advanced on a Moore single, and scored on Booth's single. Moore was thrown out at the plate on the play, the first of three Tide runners gunned down at the plate. 'Bama also had two runners thrown out trying to steal. With Turnbull cruising the two runs appeared to be enough, but the Tide continued to pressure the Hog's with an aggressive approach both at the plate and on the base paths. Alabama added two more in the fifth as Miller doubled, Salem reached on a bunt single and Overstreet had an RBI single. Arkansas contributed four errors in the inning. 'Bama seemed poised to blow the game wide open, but left the bases loaded. The Tide posted their final run in the seventh as Booth reached for the fourth time of the game on a walk, advanced on a another error, and scored on Mikey White's single. Austen Smith was thrown out at the plate on White's hit to keep the Tide from adding to the lead.
Salem had three hits for 'Bama and Booth, Miller and White added two each. Kenny Roberts, Moore and Oversteet had one hit each. For the series Salem was 4-13, Booth 3-8, Miller 3-9, White 3-9, and Overstreet 3-10.
'Bama now has an overall record of 20-13, and a SEC record of 8-4. By contrast last years team won only 21 games all year and nine SEC games. This weeks slate includes two mid-week games vs Alcorn State. Tuesday's game is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. and Wednesday's game is a 5:00 p.m. first pitch. The weekend series is a road trip to Oxford Mississippi to take on the Ole Miss Rebels. Friday's game is at 6:30 p.m., Saturday's at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday's is 1:30 p.m. All times listed are CST.
Alabama continues to receive the pitching and defense that is crucial to success. However the offense has to continue to battle and create runs. Miller has brought a gritty approach to the bottom of the order, and although his batting average is not very high (.211) he has had quality at bats, and has been able to extend innings by bunting successfully when necessary and to be hit by a pitch ( seven times in 68 plate appearances.) If Booth, Roberts, Moore and Smith can all get going at one time the Tide would score runs. You can't expect all three major freshmen, Salem, Overstreet and White, to all be clicking at the same time but if/when two of the three are the Tide can be a force. Another freshmen, Chance Vincent seems to be penciled in as the right handed hitting DH, in a platoon with lefty Carlisle, and is showing promise. Although he may not have a lot of hits to show for it, he has hit several balls hard and appears to battle in every at bat.
'Bama needs to continue to win the games that they are supposed to, and win some of the ones they are not expected to. The Texas A&M and Missouri teams both look ripe for sweeping. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt on the road are series where the Tide needs to look to try to steal a win here or there, as well as the LSU series at home. The mid-week games continue to be must win, as losing them hurts you much more than winning them helps. (The whole RPI thing that we are so familiar with through basketball.)
All in all a 20-13 record after 33 games is a big positive, and a surprise to many. 'Bama was picked by most to finish sixth or seventh in the Western Division of the SEC. To be 8-4 after four SEC series is definitely a step in the right direction.
Bama Baseball Fever, Catch it!!
Roll Tide Ya'll Roger