Coach Mitch Gaspard opens his seventh season on Friday night as the Tide hosts the Maryland Terrapins. 'Bama will be playing a super regional team from last year that won a school record 42 games, and is picked to win the Big 10 this year. The Tide finished 32-28,12-18 in the SEC and did not make the NCAA Tournament.
Pitching carried Maryland last year, as the Terps hit .264 as a team with 52 home runs and 60 stolen bases, while limiting opponents to .232 BA with 28 home runs. By contrast, the Tide, thought by most to be a poor hitting team, hit .275 as a team with 27 home runs (playing in the cavernous Hoover Met didn't help this number.) The biggest drawback for 'Bama was striking out 485 times against only drawing 192 walks. The Tide pitchers allowed an average of .255 and gave up 28 home runs,striking out 485 batters and walking 248.
While the Tide will have their hands full with Maryland ace Mike Shawaryn on Friday night, Alabama should match up well on Saturday and Sunday, and could possibly steal this series.
Maryland is led by junior pitcher Mike "The Unicorn" Shawaryn, an All-American and likely high first round draft pick in June's MLB Draft. Shawaryn won a school record 13 games last season, posting a 13-2 record with a 1.71 ERA and striking out 138 batters in 116 innings pitched. He only walked 29 and allowed just 85 hits. Shawaryn was also a Freshman All-American in 2014, when he won 11 games.
'Bama will send junior right-hander Geoffrey Bramblett to the mound on Friday to face Shawaryn. Bramblett led the Tide with an eight wins last season, while only taking three losses. He posted an ERA of 3.81 in hist 89 innings pitched.
The rest of the rotation will pit a pair of sophomore right-handers, Jake Walters for 'Bama and Taylor Bloom for Maryland. Walters fashioned a 4-4 record with an 3.36 ERA in 56 innings as a freshman. Bloom was 2-3 with a 4.01 ERA, but came up big in post season play, winning a game in the Los Angeles Regional. Sunday the Tide will send junior righty Nick Eicholtz to battle sophomore RHP Brian Shaffer. Eicholtz was limited to 24 innings pitched last year and sported a 3-1 record with a 3.65 ERA. Shaffer was 5-1 with a 4.57 ERA as a true freshman.
Maryland also returns two of the best relief pitchers in the Big 10 in left-hand senior Robert Galligan and big (6'8") sophomore rightie Ryan Selmer. Taylor Stiles will also figure prominently for the team.
At The Plate
The Terrapins lost four of their top five hitters, but the returnees are led by freshman All-American shortstop Kevin Smith, who led Big 10 first year players with 55 runs scored. He hit .273 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs. Nick Cieri hit .299 in part time play and should provide power for Maryland.
Alabama lost its top four hitters from last season, but will have a good mix of veterans and newcomers on offense. Senior centerfielder Georgie Salem and sophomore 1B/DH Cody Henry are the leading returning hitters, both with a .276 average. Salem led the team with 17 stolen bases. Sophomore Chandler Avant will move to shortstop this season. He hit .266 in 2015. Catcher Will Haynie was the leading home run hitter on the team last season with eight,and is the leading return RBI man with 29. Haynie only hit .195 on the year, and if he can raise that mark, much more power should follow.
Guessing The Tide's Lineup
The Tide's opening day lineup will most likely be:
LF: Jr. Hunter Webb or Fr. Gene Wood
SS: Avant at SS
RF: Fr. Chandler Taylor
2B: Fr. Cobie Vance
3B: Sr. Chance Vincent
DH: Soph. Connor Short (transfer from Auburn)
Taylor and Vance are explosive offensive players who should adapt to the college game quickly. Taylor hit over .400 in both his junior and senior years and had a total of 30 home runs in high school. Vance with .464 as a senior and was a 16th round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians. Webb returns to the Tide after one season away at junior college,after playing his freshman year at the Capstone. Wood was a Parade All-American out of Mississippi and hit over .500 his last two seasons.
Gaspard has publicly said that OF Keith Holcombe, who came over from the football team after the National Championship Game, will get at least one start this weekend, most likely on Saturday. JUCO switch-hitting catcher Tanner DeVinney will probably start behind the dish on Saturday. DeVinney hit .296 with 12 home runs at Grayson CC in 2015. Senior OF Ryan Blanchard and Sr INF Daniel Cucjen both return and add a veteran presence and experience.
Junior closer Thomas Burrows leads the bullpen with 18 career saves. Senior Ray Castillo, JUCO transfer Matt Foster,freshman lefty Dylan Durate,senior Jake Hubbard,sophomore's Tyler Adams and Tyler McMurray, will all booster the relief corps.
Two wild cards are returning LHP, Sr. Jon Keller and Jr. RHP Mike Oczypok, who are both coming back from Tommy John surgery. Keller can-will be used in a variety of roles from starting to long relief to closing. Oczypok most likely will be a mid-week starter, where he should excel.
How To Watch
The "Grand Reopening of The Joe" is sponsored by Coca Cola and grandstand tickets are available for $5 apiece for each game. The Whiskey River Band will perform before Friday's game, and kids will have face painting available,as well as access to the new playground behind the left field fence. The atmosphere and game day experience of the new stadium will be second to none in the country. Everything from concessions to the music and scoreboard graphics will be such a big improvement that fans will feel like they are in a professional park.
Friday's opening ceremony will feature ribbon cutting with AD Bill Battle and President Stewart Bell. The game begins at 6:30 p.m., Saturday's first pitch is at 3:30 and Sunday is scheduled for noon. All times are CT and will be available on SEC Network Plus (on line).
GAME 1: ALABAMA 3, Maryland 1 - Chandler Taylor with a HR, single, walk, hit-by-pitch, 2 RBI. Chandler Avant had a double and an RBI single. Keith Holcombe made his first appearance as a pinch-hitter and moved up a runner on a sacrifice ground out.
GAME 2: Maryland 9, ALABAMA 5 - Cobie Vance went 4-5, HR, SB, 2 RBI; Connor Short and Chance Vincent both went 3-4, each raising their average to .600. Nobody was very effective on the mound for the Tide.
GAME 3: ALABAMA 5, Maryland 1 - Henry and Short with two RBI apiece. Thomas Burrows throws two no-hit shutout innings with 4 Ks for the save.
Bama Baseball Fever, Catch It
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ED. Note: The game is expected to be blustery, with winds out of the SSE at 8-11 MPH, and gusts up to 18 MPH. The Joe faces SSE, so power will be at a premium in tonight's opener. Limiting the Terps bats could just help Alabama steal a season opening win. -E
ED. Note: Friday night's game is sold out! Roll Tide! Only 500 tickets remain for Saturday's game. -CB