"That is more nerve-wracking than going out there where everything is even."
Two walks had helped put him in that jam, but the freshman left-hander reached back and struck out the Bulldog batter, leaving the bases loaded. "I just needed to find my groove," Tankersley said. "I was nervous this morning, but once I got on the mound I was fine. I pitched all year against SEC hitters. Nerves weren't really an issue."
Those two first-inning runs turned out to be all that Mississippi State would get, as Bama and Tankersley rolled to a 12-2 opening game victory. The Tide plays again this afternoon at 5 pm in a winners' bracket game against Florida. The winner of that contest will be set up nicely in the double-elimination tournament.
"We were trying to get Tankersley's pitch count up," explained Bulldog Head Coach Ron Polk. "We knew it was his first SEC start. But he pitched well enough in those first two innings. And after that he just seemed to coast. He's been effective for them all year long. It's not like he was pitching because they didn't have anybody else."
Tankersley has been a key pitcher for the Tide this season, but Wednesday was only his third start and his first versus conference competition. Tide Head Coach Jim Wells needed a solid performance to protect his main starters Lance Cormier and Shane Sanders, and Tankersley responded splendidly.
"It was the plan that once we got into the playoffs to bring one of our relievers out (of the bullpen to start)," Wells said. "No. 1 you'd like to win the tournament. And No. 2 you'd like to set up for the next week's (NCAA) tournament. We needed someone to step up and take this game. Now we're set up with Cormier and Sanders. Those two will be our next two starters. After that we're like everyone else, looking for a guy to step up and pitch well."
Alabama won the game on the "mercy rule," by going up by ten runs in the eighth inning. But back in the first that end result was no sure thing. "Tank threw around 40 pitches in that first inning," Wells said. "It wasn't that he was throwing a lot of poor pitches. They just weren't swinging at his breaking ball. He threw 35 pitches and we still hadn't gotten them out. Normally, he doesn't throw 35 pitches in three innings.
"We had sent a guy down to the bullpen. Mississippi State had a chance to bust it open. Tank did a good job hanging in there to get them out."
"Like Coach said, they weren't biting on my breaking ball," Tankersley added. "I kept battling and got a couple of pitches in. We were lucky to get out of there giving up just two runs. I settled down after that."
Trotting off the mound at the end of that tense first inning, Tankersley was relieved that the damage hadn't been worse. But almost before the young pitcher had a chance to get a drink of water in the dugout Tide senior Scott McClanahan gave him the lead back with a three-run shot in the bottom of the first.
"It was just huge!" Tankersley said. "It meant everything. It was a big crowd, a big game. Getting the lead back to our side was a huge shift in momentum. From the rest of the game on we held it."
And the Bama bats weren't done, from inning to inning Alabama's lead grew. And with every extra run Tankersley's confidence grew as well. "We had the momentum," he explained. "If the score had stayed 2-2 or 3-2, you don't have the liberty of just throwing the fast ball up there and saying ‘Hit it or not.' But with a big lead, you're just trying to get ahead in the count and make them swing the bat."
For the game Mississippi State left 12 runners stranded on base, and several times Tankersley had to come up with a double-play ball or key strikeout. But the left-hander managed to walk the tightrope without giving up anymore runs. "You've just got to make a big pitch when it counts," Tankersley said. "Luckily I was able to do that after the first inning on. You just dig deep and get it done."
The game almost ended in the seventh inning, but after upping their lead to 11-2 Alabama stranded three runners on base, extending the game into the eighth. Two walks and a single later, Tankersley's day was done as Jared Woodward came on to finish the game. "Yeah, I ran out of gas in the eighth," Tankersley admitted. "My arm got tired. I'm not used to doing that. It wasn't just the inning, but my pitch count was also high. Fatigue was definitely a factor."
Having set his teammates up perfectly for the rest of the tournament, now Tankersley gets to sit back and enjoy the week, confident in a job well done. "That was the goal for the day--for me to go as deep as possible into the game," Tankersley explained. "I would have liked to have been able to finish the game out. But Woodward did a great job. If I had finished it out, then everyone else is fresh.
"The way it is now, Woodward can still come back tomorrow. (Brian) Reed, our ace in the hole, is still there. All our guys are set up to pitch. That was really our goal for the day."