The Alabama Crimson Tide opens their sparkling new 42.5 million dollar stadium on February 19th when they host Maryland in a three-game series. The much needed facility is state of the art and puts the Tide at the very top of stadiums in the country.
Coach Mitch Gaspard returns for his seventh season at the helm of the Tide after a 30-28 season, complete with no true home games. Gaspard carries a 202-167 record at the Capstone and has led the team to NCAA Tournament play in 2010 (Super Regional), 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Gaspard and staff welcome 18 new comers and two veterans returning from injury. Senior left handed pitcher Jon Keller missed the entire 2015 season after Tommy John surgery. Redshirt junior Mike Ozcypok does Keller one better, coming back from missing two seasons, with two Tommy John surgeries.
The newcomers are highlighted by the top three high school players from Alabama from last year, P Brock Taylor, 1B-OF Chandler Taylor and OF-P Sam Finnerty. Also, Fayetteville, N.C. native Cobie Vance, an infielder that was a 16th round draft pick by the Cleveland Indians; Gene Wood, from Flowood, MS, a Parade All-American; and, Alex Webb, the number one high school catcher out of the state of Tennessee.
From the JUCO ranks, RHP Matt Foster from Gulf Coast Community College is a Valley, Alabama native. Tanner DeVinney is a catcher from Grayson Community College in Texas, and Hunter Webb returns to the Tide after a season at Chattahoochee Valley Community College.
Conner Short, son of former Bama All-American pitcher Ben Short, started as a freshman at Auburn, transferred to 'Bama, and sat out last season and is now eligible. For local flavor the team has added RHP Kyle Cameron from Hale County High School and OF Keith Holcombe from Hillcrest High School. Holcombe is better known as a linebacker for the National Champion Crimson Tide football team.
Veterans Georgie Salem, Chance Vincent, Will Haynie, Ryan Blanchard, Chandler Avant and Cody Henry lead the returning position players. The rotation is deep with Geoffrey Bramblett, Jake Walters, Jake Hubbard, Nick Eicholtz, Thomas Burrows, Ray Castillo, Colton Freeman, Tyler Adams, Tyler McMurray and Zac Rogers return on the mound.
Salem is a three-year starter and will play centerfield. The lefty hit .276 last season and led the team with 17 stolen bases. Look for Salem to continue to play center as well as anyone in the country, and bring more power to his game this season. With his strength, speed and experience he is poised to have a big season.
Vincent is also a three year starter and will begin the year at third base after playing first base last season. The Scott, LA native is a great defender and will look to improve on his .237 average of last year. Haynie, the strong armed catcher, threw out 20 base runners last year and led the team with eight home runs. Avant will move to shortstop to replace Mikey White, a second round draft pick by the Oakland A's. As a freshman Avant hits .266 while playing left field, third base and second base last year.He added 11 stolen bases to place second on the team.Henry, now a sophomore, was the primary DH last season, but played some first base as well.The switch hitter hit .276 and showed a good command of the strike zone, drawing 26 walks in 156 at bats.
Taylor will play first base and should provide much needed power to the team. The lefty swinger hit over .400 in his high school career and added 30 home runs. The Montgomery native can also DH or play either corner outfield position. Taylor is more than just a power guy, and should be a middle of the order guy for the Tide.
Vance is recovering from a broken ankle and should be ready to begin the season as the second baseman.The stocky, 5'9" 205 pounder is said to have some of the quickest hands around according to Gaspard. Webb was a part time starter in left field for 'Bama in 2014, and after a year away, is back to try and win the job full time.The Phenix City native hit .382 at Chattoochee Valley last year.Wood, who played SS in high school, will battle Webb for the starting nod.The lefty swinging, righty throwing, Wood hit .500 as a high school senior and .596 as a junior.
Right field candidates are Holcombe, Blanchard and Finnerty. Holcombe hasn't played since his senior year in high school, and will also have some football duties to attend too. The linebacker is a 6'3" 240 pound specimen that can run.Blanchard had a horrific knee injury in 2014 and never was completely healthy last season, but is back and ready to go for his senior campaign. Finnerty, the freshman from Birmingham may also contribute on the mound.
DeVinney, a switch-hitter, will split time with Haynie behind the plate, and can also DH at times.The Allen, Texas native was a Big 12 All Freshman selection at Kansas State in 2014, and hit .297 with 12 home runs at Grayson CC last year. Short and senior Daniel Cucjen will fight for playing time at shortstop, second base and third base, as they are versatile enough to play all three spots.
The pitching staff is deep, and has a good mixture of experience and youth, righties and lefties and starters and relievers. Junior Geoffrey Bramblett returns as the leading winner from last season, sporting an 8-3 record with a 3.81 ERA. Sophomore right-hander Jake Walters had an excellent freshman year with a 4-4 record and 3.36 ERA. Two years ago Keller was 5-2 with an outstanding 2.97 ERA, and three years ago Oxzypok was 5-2 with a 3.02 ERA as a freshman. Eicholtz, now a junior, arguably has the most upside of anyone on the staff and looks to have a breakout season.
Thomas Burrows returns for his third year as the closer and the left-hander's velocity is up to 94 MPH. Senior Ray Castillo joins Burrows for the one-two punch at the back-end of the game and sported a 3.12 ERA in 24 appearances last season. Jake Hubbard a hard throwing fifth year senior and has been through the wars and should help the team in the middle innings.Foster is a hard thrower that will defiantly be in the mix as a starter or reliever.
Freshman left hander Dylan Durate is a Texas native who had a 32-5 career record in high school, going 12-1 with 0.87 ERA his senior year. Tyler Adams and Tyler McMurray are big, tall right-handed sophomores who will also have a role. Cameron, Love, Rogers and Colton Freeman could also be called on to help.
This team appears to be deep and versatile, both in the field and on the mound. Several players can play multiple positions and all pitchers can start or relieve.
After spending all of last season on the road the return to The Joe will be a huge lift to the team.The amenities of the stadium will be second to none, and the return of the Right Field Ragers Student Section will give a big energy boost to the players.
This is an important season for the team, and for Gaspard, as they christen the new stadium. The schedule offers plenty of challenges with out of conference games with Maryland, Notre Dame, Oregon, Houston and Southern Miss, among others, in addition to the tough SEC foes. The first series is the Maryland Terrapins on February 19th, 20th and 21st. The first game is at 6:30 p.m., Saturday is set for 3:30 p.m. and Sunday's game three has a noon first pitch.
We'll have a series preview as the Maryland games approach.
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