We certainly didn't expect this from the University of Alabama baseball team.
Expert predictions had them pegged near the bottom of the SEC West, out of the postseason for another maddening year.
As the 2005 SEC season nears its halfway point, it looks like those experts were dead wrong. Heading into this weekend's crucial road series at Florida, the Crimson Tide is 25-10, 8-4 in league play, and a consensus top 25 team in all four major national polls.
Most amazingly, they've done it without their best pitcher.
They've done it while playing a power-light, small-ball heavy form of baseball.
Against huge odds, they've become a team. A good team, at that.
Although six SEC series and the postseason – yeah, remember that? – remain, it appears Jim Wells still knows how to coach. This time last year, some were questioning that. An all-pitch, no-hit Alabama squad found just about every way possible to lose games en route to the worst season of Wells' 10-year Crimson Tide tenure.
At 29-26 overall, 10-20 in SEC play, it was the program's worst record since 1994 – former coach Barry Schollenberger's last year.
Was it just an aberration? Or part of an ugly trend?
Since the program's last College World Series appearance in 1999, Wells had guided the Tide to just two winning SEC seasons. That five-year span included three NCAA Tournament appearances, but only because a below-average 2003 squad snuck into the SEC Tournament with a 14-16 record, then ran the table at the Hoover Met, its home away from home.
During that time, the rest of the SEC caught up with – and passed – Alabama.
In a league where all you have to do is make the SEC Tournament to get a berth, the Tide wasn't good enough. And who knew if they'd catch up?
The HOPE scholarship controversy – which limits Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas and Vanderbilt to 11.7 scholarships while the rest of the SEC gets extra scholarship money from lottery-based grants or similar programs – threatened to keep the Tide near the bottom of the league for years to come unless it recruited flawlessly.
Wells knew it, and did two things: recruited better than he had in several years (with the help of talented recruiting coordinator Todd Butler) and made the most of the players he had.
Butler and Wells reeled in a national top-10 recruiting class, highlighted by shortstop Cale Iorg, catcher Kody Valverde and relievers Josh Copeland and David Robertson.
Meanwhile, other players already on the roster – like new No.1 starter T.J. Large and senior outfielder Gabe Scott – have elevated their games.
Both have spent significant portions of their Alabama careers injured; Large, for example, would likely be in a minor league camp by now if not for an injured elbow he suffered last year. But now both are healthy, and both are major contributors. It says plenty for Wells' coaching ability, as well as his ability to keep his team focused following last season's disaster.
Heading into this weekend's series, the Tide is clearly on the right track. Alabama has won 24 of its last 30 games, including its last two series against top-10 clubs (LSU and Ole Miss). The Tide has won five of its last seven games against ranked opponents, and has won back-to-back SEC series for the first time since April 2002.
Most telling, it has won three of its four SEC series this year after winning one (against lowly Kentucky) all of last season.
And the Tide has done it all without sophomore lefthander Wade LeBlanc, who will return to the rotation this weekend. LeBlanc missed the last month while nursing a bruised left shoulder suffered while celebrating a victory over Miami of Ohio.
A lesser team might have fallen apart without a shutdown pitcher like LeBlanc, who was the consensus national freshman of the year in 2004. But Alabama has thrived without him. Large has become a solid No.1 pitcher, while steady senior Brent Carter, Robertson and sophomore Brandon Belcher have filled in the rotation's gaps.
Without LeBlanc, the rotation has been good. With him, it could be great.
The same could be said for the entire roster. The next two weeks – against top-10 teams Florida and South Carolina – will be tough, but the past two weekends have shown that Alabama isn't scared by rankings.
This team is pitching well, getting clutch hits, and, perhaps most importantly, getting along well.
If the Tide continues at its current pace, an NCAA regional berth and hosting opportunity seem well within range, and a national seed isn't out of the question.
Not bad for a program some were burying a year ago.
Now, they're a team – yes, a team – to be reckoned with.