Almost everything looks perfect for the start of Alabama’s 2016 baseball season. Temperatures in Tuscaloosa Friday when the Crimson Tide hosts Maryland are expected to be mild, mid-60s when the game starts at 6:30 p.m. CST. A good crowd is expected with only a few hundred tickets remaining in the 4,500-seat Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
The stadium is part of the show, too, as Alabama’s recently rebuilt home is a $42 million jewel.
Additionally, Bama Coach Mitch Gaspard expects to have a good baseball team this year.
So what could go wrong? The opponent. Maryland, is a very strong team coming of an NCAA Super Regional appearance, and the Terrapins of Coach John Szefc (yes, that family needed to buy a couple of vowels) have a Friday starting pitcher who may be the first player taken in this year’s Major League Draft. Mike Shawaryn, a right-hander, was 13-2 last year as a junior. He had a 1.71 ERA with 138 strikeouts against only 29 walks. He was All-America and the number one pitcher in the Big Ten.
Alabama will counter with a junior right-hander in Geoffrey Bramblett.
Saturday’s contest will start at 3:30 p.m., and Sunday’s finale at noon. All three games will be televised on SEC Network-plus.
While Gaspard acknowledged that there has been much attention on the rebuilt stadium, and that it has provided pluses for the Crimson Tide baseball players even before the start of the season, he said the real emphasis is on the team. “We’re ready to play,” he said.
The team moved into the new facility for pre-season workouts and Gaspard said it has provided “a different energy. You start to feel the importance of this new ball park. And you’re proud.”
Pragmatically, Gaspard said the stadium has been “better for the development of the players,” pointing to a hitting facility that is unmatched in college baseball and including technology in the players’ classroom for improving technique. Players added that the players lounge is a place where the men spend time doing homework and “hanging out,” and that it has been a plus in team bonding.
But all that will just be window dressing if the product doesn’t measure up. Gaspard said, “What we have seen in the fall and early spring is a lot of competition.”
He expects pitching to be the strength of the team. After Bramblett starts on Friday night, the Tide will pitch sophomore right-‘hander Jake Walters on Saturday and close Sunday with junior righty Nick Eicholtz. Bramblett and Walters were Bama’s weekend starters last year in a 32-28 season – a season most-remembered for Bama playing 34 “home” games across the state, but not in Tuscaloosa.
Former starters Jon Keller and Mike Oczypok return from injuries that sidelined them the majority of the last two seasons.
The Crimson Tide bullpen returns seven arms from a year ago, including two-year closer Thomas Burrows and his career 18 saves, Ray Castillo, and Jake Hubbard. Castillo made 24 appearances in 2015 and led relievers with a 3.12 ERA. Hubbard has pitched in 51 Alabama games in his career.
Bama returns 21 lettermen (9 lost) and has 18 newcomers.
Catcher Will Haynie, who had a team-best eight home runs last year, is among the returning starters. He could have more homers this year. In 2015 the Tide played 30 of its “home” games at the cavernous Hoover Met. In rebuilt Sewell-Thomas, the outfield walls are closer to home plate (necessary to improve sightlines down the foul lines). The distance down the lines is 320, it’s 368 in the power alleys, and 392 to straightaway center.
Alabama pitcher Jake Walters said, “I personally wouldn’t have voted for that, but I’m confident our hitters are going to do very well.”
Haynie is expected to get some help in catching duties this year with the arrival of junior Tanner DeVinny.
Senior third baseman Chance Vincent missed the last nine games of last season with an injury. Sophomores Chandler Avant (shortstop) and Cody Henry (first base) are back after having starting in 75 per cent of the Tide’s games as freshmen.
Speaking of freshmen, Gaspard said as many as three could be in the starting lineup this weekend. Cobie Vance is the leader for the job at second base.
Alabama also returns centerfielder Georgie Salem, one of the best defensive players in the Southeastern Conference last year and the Tide’s leading base-stealer.
Candidates in left field are freshman Gene Wood, junior Hunter Webb, and a freshman coming over from football, Keith Holcombe.
In right field the battle is between senior Ryan Blanchard and freshman Chandler Taylor.
Gaspard said he hasn’t settled on a designated hitter, but said he has a lot of options.