Alabama baseball had plenty of ups and downs this season, finishing 32-26 overall. Despite a 15-15 SEC record, the Tide became only the second team in league history not to make the NCAA record with a .500 conference record, joining the 2014 Missouri Tigers. The end of the season lead to coach Mitch Gaspard resigning after seven seasons. Now the search is on for the next 'Bama coach.
The uneven season for the Crimson Tide ended after being eliminated from the SEC Tournament, following a 4-1 loss to regular season champ, Mississippi State, and a 5-4 loss to the top ranked team in the country, the Florida Gators.
'Bama was in the final eight of the tournament with seven teams that are ranked in the top 10 in the country (and all seven are hosting regionals,) which shows just what a mountain the Tide has to scale to reach elite status. Mid week struggles and a high RPI doomed the team. After the selection show aired on ESPNU, coach Mitch Gaspard gathered his troops and announced his resignation as head coach. This article will be a look at what went right and what went wrong, as well as look at (possible) returning players.
The Good Start
You have to start with the opening of the brand new Sewell-Thomas stadium as a major highlight of the season. After a season away, playing the 2015 season in the Hoover Met, everyone was excited to return to Tuscaloosa and their jewel of a new stadium. 'Bama started the season welcoming the Maryland Terrapins to town, in front of packed crowds, full of dignitaries and excited fans. The right field plaza was packed out for the whole series, as well as the stadium itself. The Tide took two of three games, and exciting freshman Chandler Taylor ignited the crowd by homering into the Plaza on his first collegiate at bat.
'Bama got off to a great start at 9-1 and reached as high as 15th in the nation early on. After the Maryland series North Dakota came to town after taking a series from USC in Los Angeles. The Tide was able to sweep NDU, who unfortunately announced later in the season that they were stopping baseball after this year.
The first SEC series of the season was a road trip to Baton Rouge to take on the mighty Bayou Bengals. LSU is now a national seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they had no answer for the Tide, who took the first two games on Friday and Saturday, and held a 4-1 lead entering the eighth inning of the third game. The Tigers won 7-5 to salvage one game for the then-6th ranked team in the country.
After taking two out of three from the Tennessee Vols at home and game one from UGA in Athens, the Tide sat at 16-9 overall and 5-2 in the SEC, and was atop the Western Division standings, before thing started going off the rails. A series win over top-10 Ole Miss at home and a sweep of cellar dweller Arkansas in Fayetteville were the other high water marks for the Tide on the year.
What Went Wrong?
The Tide stumbled down the back half of the season, finishing 16-17 and 10-13 in conference play. As has been the case for the past several years, a lack of run production was the main culprit in the decline. Combined with some bad injury luck, the lack of depth showed throughout, and 'Bama wasn't able to quite recover.
The pitching staff was strong, led by weekend starters Geoffrey Bramblett, Jake Walters and Nick Eicholtz and the bullpen duo of Matt Foster and Thomas Burrows. However when Burrows missed a month with a strained oblique and Eicholtz missed three starts with a inflamed forearm, the rest of the staff was not equipped to fill the void. Also Jon Keller and Mike Oczypok, both back from Tommy John surgery were limited and not able to fill their roles totally. The Tide just doesn't have the horses that teams like Florida and Vanderbilt are able to trot out. Both of those teams have multiple 6'5" guys throwing 95-98 mph to call on.
The pitching staff wasn't the only one to miss time with injuries. Shortstop Chandler Avant was just getting into a groove when he broke his ankle in a game at Texas A&M. The rising junior had raised his average to .278 by hitting .459 over his last 12 games prior to his injury.
Third baseman Connor Short was only able to play in 28 games after suffering a trio of different injuries, a concussion, a strained groin and finally a torn quad muscle. Ironically Short played many years of quarterback, including starting for Hoover High, with out ever getting hurt. In addition OF-DH-LB Keith Holcombe, on loan from Nick Saban's football team, missed most of a month because of spring training drills and scrimmages. Missing the whole left side of their infield for half the season, and their lead off man for a month really tested the limited depth available to Gaspard and staff.
With Alabama and Auburn not playing on an even playing field scholarship wise with the rest of the SEC, depth and missing on a player are magnified, especially when injures occur.
Who's Coming Back?
Whoever the next coach is, he will have some pieces to work with. Taylor was named to the All-SEC Freshman team after hitting .274 with nine home runs and 33 runs driven in. The Montgomery native showed patience, leading the team in walks with 40 and both on base percentage and slugging percentage as well as RBI. Taylor showed off a strong, accurate arm, gunning out nine runners on the base paths from his right field station.
Another dynamic freshman, second baseman Cobie Vance, also returns. A late season slide left his average at .258, with three home runs, but the North Carolina native became a fan favorite with his flare defensively and personality. Holcombe, if he returns, will bring back a .279 batting average and a .398 on base percentage. With more reps Holcombe, could tap some vast potential out if his 6'3", 235 pound body. Freshmen pitchers Brock Love, Dylan Duarte, Sam Finnerty (who also doubles as an OF-DH), and Kyle Cameron had varying degrees of success and should help going forward.
Jake Walters leads the group of rising juniors, as he held the Saturday starter role all year, and lead the team with 84 strikeouts in 84 innings while posting a 5-4 record and 2.67 ERA. Avant will be healthy and first baseman-DH Cody Henry will look to bounce back from his .223 sophomore year, after hitting .276 as a freshman.
The rising seniors are a little more tricky, because of the MLB draft. Burrows, Eicholtz, Bramblett, Matt Foster, Will Haynie and Colton Freeman all very well could hear their names called. Burrows is a lock to go, possibly in the second-third round range, and sadly we have seen his last days in Crimson. Eicholtz should be drafted high enough to warrant signing, maybe in the fifth round area. Haynie was a draft-eligible sophomore last year and returned, but with his defensive ability and pure power he will also most likely leave. Freeman, a lefty reliever that graduated, got limited opportunities, but he showed flashes, not allowing a run and striking out 18 in only nine innings of work. Bramblett is the wild card, the Friday night ace if the staff, will be drafted, we just don't know if he will be taken high enough to take the leap and leave school.
The Tide signed 17 new players for the upcoming season, but with a coaching change and the draft in June, who actually makes it on campus remains to be seen. I have talked to several of the current players (that are not draft eligible) and their thoughts at this point are to return. However when the new coaching change is announced, of course things may change. Whoever comes in has some pieces to work with, and hopefully some talented new comers to build the Tide into a baseball power.
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