Tide Needs a Lift

At this rate, it might not matter that the University of Alabama baseball team must go on the road to the site of the top overall national seed Tulane instead of possibly hosting its own NCAA Regional.

The pitching is hurting badly and hanging on by a string.

The big hitters aren't hitting.

And the Tide watched the SEC Tournament at home over the weekend, thanks to Friday's second loss in three days to Ole Miss.

How did this team ever win 38 games? Or make it anywhere close to the weekend at the SEC Tournament?

It's further proof - as if you needed any - that this is one of Jim Wells' best coaching jobs at the helm of the Alabama program.

In case you forgot, this is a pretty decent facsimile of the same group that had already stowed away the bats and gloves this time a year ago, following an ugly 29-26 season and a 10-20 record that landed it squarely in 11th place in the SEC standings, ahead of only lowly Kentucky.

With the only major additions freshman shortstop Cale Iorg, junior catcher Kody Valverde and freshman reliever David Robertson, this crew stayed in contention for the SEC overall and West Division titles until the final two weeks of the season, when bats that had carried the Tide through most of the SEC slate finally cooled off.

The pitching staff - one of the only strengths of 2004's wretched slate - was wracked by injuries. Sophomore ace Wade LeBlanc, the first player in school history to be named SEC and National Freshman of the Year after an amazing debut, hurt his collarbone in a freak celebration accident just before the SEC season began in mid-March.

He returned a month later, but is only now rounding back into form; a 4-5 record and 3.76 ERA, compared with 2004's 8-4 record and 2.08 ERA, are proof of that.

His compatriots have been just as inconsistent.

Junior T.J. Large was a revelation the first two months of the season as the Tide's No.1 starter. But over the last month, he's looked tired and worn out, incapable of retiring hitters and going deep into games. Thursday, he gave up four runs in two innings to eighth-seeded Arkansas; if not for senior Brent Carter's sterling relief effort, the Tide would have watched Friday on television.

No.2 starter Brandon Belcher couldn't stay healthy long enough to make an impact; he's 4-0 with a 5.37 ERA, but left last week's start at Auburn with elbow pain, diagnosed as bone spurs. They kept him out of the SEC Tournament, and closely followed a stint on the sidelines with a strained oblique, or stomach muscle.

And the hitters - so hot through the first half of the SEC slate - haven't been much help either. Senior left fielder Gabe Scott saw his average climb well above .400 during April, but it has fallen in the .370 range; he was 0-for-7 in the tournament before a first-inning double Friday night.

That hit was the first in 28 at-bats by the first four hitters in the Alabama lineup, a trend that surely disturbs Wells.

He'll likely contemplate it while packing his bags for the program's first NCAA Regional appearance in two years.

Alabama entered the SEC Tournament thinking it was on the edge of host consideration, but rightfully played itself straight out of contention.

As the No.5 seed in a four-host league, the Tide needed to do something special to earn a home regional of its own, like make it to the weekend.

A 3-1 opening-round loss to Ole Miss was the first nail in the coffin; Friday night's defeat closed the lid.

So now, the Tide must go on the road - where if the Tide can get past Louisiana-Lafayette, a 50-9 Tulane squad waits - and hope the bats get hot at the right time, carrying a pitching staff over the hump to a Super Regional.

It's a faint hope, but that's really all this program has right now.

Is it an improvement from last season? Absolutely.

But plenty of work remains for Wells and his staff to take the Tide back to its glory days of the late 1990s.


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