Tough competition for Tide the next two weeks

Alabama has fielded baseball teams for 110 years, and this year's record of 22-3 is the best ever for the Tide after 25 games. The 1997, 1983, and 1955 teams were tied for the previous best, at 21-4; the 97 and 83 teams both reached the championship game of the College World Series, so this season's start looks doubly impressive.

Things get tougher now, as Bama ends its seven game road trip with a three game series at South Carolina this week-end. The Tide then hosts Southern Mississippi and Austin Peay in mid-week games before welcoming Florida for three games the following week-end at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.

Alabama currently sits atop the SEC's Western Division with a 5-1 conference record, followed by Auburn at 4-2, Mississippi State (3-3), and Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss all at 2-4 in the league. Georgia leads the East, also with a 5-1 record, with Florida and South Carolina tied for second at 4-2. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are 2-4, while Tennessee trails at 1-5.

Alabama is ranked in all four major polls, holding down the number 5 spot in Collegiate Baseball, 8 in both Baseball Weekly and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and 13 in Baseball America. Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, and Florida are all ranked in at least one of the polls, with the latter two being ranked ahead of Bama in all polls except for Florida's number 7 ranking against Alabama's 5 in Collegiate Baseball. South Carolina is third in that poll and fourth in the remaining three.

Therefore, Alabama has back-to-back week-ends against the two top teams in the league -- at least according to the pollsters. A respectable won-lost record against these two power-houses would do wonders for the team's national ranking and chances of an SEC championship, and would also be a confidence builder for the players.

Alabama has relied on strong pitching for its success thus far, ranking first in the SEC in ERA (2.76), saves (12), fewest walks (52 - the strikeout to walk ratio is an outstanding 200 to 52), and fewest wild pitches (6, or about 1 in every 4 games). Opposing batters are hitting only .248 against the Tide, and the staff rates near the top of the league in almost all other pitching categories.

Lance Cormier leads the SEC in ERA with 0.98, and has won all seven of his starts this season. His strikout to walk ratio is an incredible 45-5. He is currently tied with Mike Innes (1968-71) for most career wins for a Bama pitcher with 27, and will hopefully have the record by himself after the series opener against the Gamecocks Friday night.

Unfortunately, the rest of the defense hasn't been as consistent as the pitching. The team's fielding average of .954 is only ninth best in the conference, and well back of South Carolina's league-leading .979. Throwing errors have been the biggest shortcoming.

Florida leads the SEC in almost all hitting categories, with statistics that sound like those of a slow-pitch softball team. The Gators lead the league in batting average (a gaudy .398, with only one batter below .300 and he is a sub who has only batted 13 times), runs (13 per game), hits, triples, home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. South Carolina has the most doubles, and is second to Florida in most other hitting statistics.

Alabama's team batting average of .311 is seventh. Unlike most years the team is not one of the leaders in home runs, having hit only 23; Florida and South Carolina are far ahead in this statistic, with 61 and 44 respectively. The only hitting category that Bama leads the league in is one that they'd prefer not leading: Tide hitters have grounded into 24 double plays (South Carolina, at the other end of the spectrum, has done so on only 8 occasions).

Coach Jim Wells has fared reasonably well against South Carolina, with a record of 8-7, including sweeping all three games last season. Wells has absolutely dominated Florida, with 17 wins against 3 losses; the teams did not play each other last season.

Other key matchups this week-end are Auburn at Florida and Mississippi State at LSU. Auburn hosts LSU the following week, with Georgia traveling to Mississippi State in a battle of the Bulldogs. Ole Miss has a chance to make up some ground, visiting Kentucky this week-end before hosting Vanderbilt the next.

LSU fans, accustomed to almost always being ranked among the top teams in the country under long-time coach Skip Bertman, are not showing much patience with the rocky start of the Tigers under Smoke Laval (16-11 thus far, including four losses to in-state teams with one of them a shut-out loss to Louisiana-LaFayette, as well as losing two of three games at home to Vanderbilt to open the SEC season). A strong home showing against Mississippi State would go a long way toward ending this, but another series loss at home could be devastating.

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