Alabama Baseball Struggling

By nature, Jim Wells is understated. The veteran Alabama baseball coach speaks in a calm, flat tone. His wit is drier than the Mojave Desert. When he slips a joke into conversation, it's like Kerry Wood following three 100-mile per-hour heaters with a 79 MPH change-up. Ask him, though, and he finds nothing funny about his baseball team's current state.

For the second consecutive season and third in the last four, the Crimson Tide enters the second half of its Southeastern Conference slate in dire straits.

Dating back to last season, Alabama has lost seven consecutive SEC series, including all four in 2004. If the season ended today, the Tide (22-13, 4-8) would be last in the SEC West and 11th overall (ahead of only Kentucky) and out of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

Wells realizes the situation is deadly serious, but is approaching another second-half run in a most positive manner–starting with this weekend's crucial three-game home set with No.16 Auburn.

"I'm aware of (the situation)," he said. "Of course you're aware. Is that going to make a difference in what we talk about during this session? No. But I think we're all aware.

"Are we going to respond more to desperation or ‘This is it?' I don't know if that's going to be a positive thing, knowing if you don't win it's over with. It certainly motivates me."

Right now, Wells is the best asset this struggling team has.

He is stern, yet confident. Driven, yet grounded. Funny, yet serious.

Perhaps most importantly, he's experienced.

And anyone criticizing him right now needs to calm down and look at the facts.

Ten years ago, nobody in these parts had any delusions of making the NCAA Tournament, winning the SEC or making the College World Series.

Under former Coach Barry Schollenberger, Alabama's baseball program was less than an afterthought. In Schollenberger's final seven seasons, the Tide had only two winning SEC records.

In 10 years, Wells has had exactly one losing record–last season's 14-16 mark.

In Schollenberger's final 11 seasons, Alabama made only two NCAA Tournaments.

In 10 years, Wells has made nine NCAA fields, missing a perfect 10 in 2001 with a 32-23 record and 15-15 SEC mark. And had the Tetris pieces fallen correctly on the final day of the regular season, Alabama would have made the SEC field–and likely the NCAA Tournament.

In 15 seasons, Schollenberger made the College World Series exactly once.

In 10 seasons, Wells has guided Alabama teams to Omaha three times, including a runner-up finish in 1999.

By now, you get the point. Alabama's baseball program is better–much better–under Wells' steady guidance.

This season has been a struggle, and perhaps a disappointment after last season's unexpected SEC Tournament title and NCAA regional appearance.

Pitching, outside of preseason All-America Brent Carter's unexpected struggles, has been as strong as expected.

But the hitting has been wobbly as a newborn colt searching for its legs.

Heading into last night's 5-4 victory over UAB, the Tide was hitting .277 with only 23 home runs as a team. Sophomore Evan Bush leads his teammates with only six home runs.

In losses, Alabama was hitting only .207 with just six home runs and has been outscored 72-36.

"We've never had this," Wells says of the offensive struggles. "Last year we weren't super-duper, but if you left the ball over the middle of the plate enough we could score some runs on you and maybe put a team away. But then again we didn't have the pitchers to keep them down either.

"From the very beginning I thought the team could be successful because you could put some pitchers up there and possibly the right defensive team, although we've kind of got away from that trying to get a couple more hitters in there. I don't think we've ever had to struggle offensively quite like this."

Somehow, though, Alabama is close to, at the very least, becoming a decent team.

All four SEC weekend series have come down to a deciding Sunday game. Alabama has lost all four, but three have been decided by two runs or less.

Last Sunday against Vanderbilt, Matt Downs slammed what would have been a game-winning double to right field. Of course, Commodore right fielder Worth Scott made an amazing, slam-into-the-wall over the shoulder catch, and Alabama lost 3-2.

That kind of catch can demoralize teams. But Wells tried his best to keep his guys cool.

"When the guy made the great catch, I heard some guys go, ‘Are we ever going to get a break?'" Wells said. "And there's some truth to that. But really and truly we control two or three things that could have determined that. And as long as we keep that mindset and make one of those work for us, I think we'll be all right."

An extremely tough road remains. The next three opponents–Auburn, South Carolina and LSU–are all top-25 fixtures, and only Kentucky and Mississippi State are probable winnable series.

But as Wells has proved, it isn't wise to count him out. Ever.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column weekly for BamaMag.com


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