Bama's Season Faces Critical Stretch Run

"Ay, caramba!" Alabama baseball coach Jim Wells must have been saying to himself on Cinco de Mayo as his Crimson Tide pitchers issued a school-record 16 free passes in a 4-3 loss in 11 innings at Arkansas.

And before the weekend was up, tequila straight up might have been a welcome alternative to the frustrations in store at Baum Stadium for the Crimson Tide. Arkansas dealt Alabama its first SEC sweep of the season, allowing Kentucky (16-8 in the SEC) to take a one-game lead in the conference standings and permitting the Hogs (14-10) to pull within a game of Alabama (15-9) in the SEC West.

The Crimson Tide left 33 men on base on the weekend, hit .200 with men on base and went 0-for-6 with the bases loaded during the lost weekend in the Ozarks.

Still, you'd have thought the Alabama club would have been hotter under the collar than the Razorbacks during Friday's walk-a-thon, but on the official eject-o-meter, Arkansas won 2-0. Razorback assistant coach Todd Butler, formerly the two-stint Bama assistant, got the heave-ho for arguing balls and strikes, and key hitter Jake Dugger got tossed for slamming his bat down after a strikeout.

Arkansas fans were also upset at the arbiting at home plate by Rick Darby, unleashing a chorus of boos on several occasions, and serenading the departing umpiring crew with catcalls after Friday's late ending. The crew was also roundly booed during introductions on Saturday and Sunday.

Was it a case of an incredibly shrinking strike zone on Friday night that led to the Alabama walk record?

Not necessarily is the feedback from an attendee at that game. Inconsistency by Darby was cited as more of a concern.

When he wasn't walking guys, Alabama ace Wade LeBlanc was as "on" as he's been in some time. The only hits he allowed in six-plus innings were an RBI double and a solo home run, both to Hogs catcher Brian Walker. When LeBlanc walked Willard to end an 11-pitch at-bat in the seventh, his night was done, and so, eventually, was Alabama's 3-2 lead.

A failed double play conversion, a stolen base, a wild throw on the steal attempt and a wild pitch gift wrapped the tying run for the Hogs, ensuring LeBlanc would receive his fourth no-decision in five starts.

Of greater concern for Wells and the Crimson Tide is the recent performances of Saturday starter Bernard Robert, who has been roughed up in each of his last five starts. Robert lasted just 1 2/3 innings against the Razorbacks and allowed eight runs on seven hits and three walks.

The junior right-hander has lost three of his last four starts, and in his last five starts Robert is 2-3 with a 9.63 ERA.

Wells, who has not hesitated to tinker with his pitching rotation in the past, has to be thinking about moving freshman Tommy Hunter from his normal Sunday slot up to Saturday. If that were to happen, Wells would then have to re-think his Sunday situation, weighing Robert's status with that of Jake McCarter (6-1, 2.33), who has been a solid mid-week guy and now has two SEC appearances under his belt.

Hunter has been the most consistent Alabama starter the last five or six weeks. Alabama had won four of his last five starts before the Razorbacks scored four runs in the sixth inning of a 5-3 win on Sunday. That marked Hunter's first loss since March 19 at No. 23 Georgia.

Hunter deserved a better fate against the Hogs, as the Tide batters went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left two or more runners on base in six innings.

If you're forecasting the stretch run, you can take Alabama's remaining schedule in two different ways. The Tide is facing Florida at home and Tennessee on the road the next two weekends, so you could make an argument that Alabama should finish strong against two SEC East weaker sisters that would not qualify for the eight-team SEC Tournament if it was seeded today. You could also figure that the Gators and Volunteers -- both College World Series participants last season -- will be fighting their rears off to try to reach the league tournament.

I predict Alabama will go 4-2 the rest of the way. Thus, to achieve a tie with Kentucky, the team coached by Tuscaloosa native John Cohen, the Tide would have to hope the Bat Cats go 3-3 in its final two series against the Bulldogs -- Mississippi State at home and Georgia on the road.

Should Alabama and Kentucky tie atop the SEC standings, the tiebreaker would fall to their records against the SEC's No. 3 seed and so on, since the Crimson Tide and Wildcats did not play each other. In that case, Bama would become a huge Georgia fan, since the Tide has already won a series against the Bulldogs.

Kentucky would hold the tiebreaker advantage if either South Carolina or Arkansas, the current third-place team, finished third overall. Both teams swept Ole Miss, which is tied with Georgia and South Carolina at 13-11 for fourth through sixth. Alabama would hold the tiebreaker edge if Vanderbilt (12-12) finished third.

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