Pitching Decision Proves Wise

Jim Wells must have been playing a hunch. Just when he had the University of Alabama's beat writers convinced he was going to make the much-anticipated move of Jake McCarter into the starting rotation, he passed on the idea and kept the struggling Bernard Robert as his opening-game starter on Thursday night in Knoxville, Tennessee.

When you consider all that was at stake in that opener, Wells' decision to leave Robert in was gutsy, and perhaps prescient.

His roll of the dice didn't look smart early. After three pitches in the first, Robert and the Tide was down 2-0.

Yet the Crimson Tide bats went nuclear in the middle innings against Tennessee ace Craig Cobb, and Wells looks like a genius on the morning after.

Now he's got ace Wade LeBlanc and sensational freshman Tommy Hunter mounting the hill in back-to-back games that will determine if Alabama is to win its first SEC regular-season championship since 1996. Beyond that, he's got McCarter, with his 2.24 ERA ready in relief, along with David Robertson and Jordan Davis. Robertson and Davis have been as sharp as carpet tacks in recent outings, so the Tide is primed for 18 solid innings on the mound tonight and tomorrow.

If Alabama gets more help from Georgia – as it did Thursday with the Bulldogs bouncing back from a 6-0 deficit to edge Kentucky 10-9 – the league crown will be within the Tide's reach this weekend.

Robert's rebound from a series of sub-par (some dreadful) starts is characteristic of what's been happening with this scrappy bunch most of the season. Instead of two or three studs leading the way every night, the Crimson Tide has gotten key contributions from all quarters of the lineup and the pitching staff.

Take Spencer Pennington for example. Just a month ago, Pennington was hitting around .315 or so, but he had little pop for a first baseman of his physical stature and his penchant for delivering key hits was, well, not very active. Yet the old quarterback came through with a critical RBI double in the Tide's series-opening win against Auburn three weeks ago, and he powered up for five RBI last Saturday as Alabama snapped a four-game losing streak against Florida. "Spence" has homered in three consecutive series, and his last two blasts have been three-run jobs.

How about Ryan Rhoden? The freshman fouled up Julio Borbon's leadoff triple last night, but he repaid the blunder in spades by going 3-for-5 with three runs scored and two driven in.

Another freshman, Alex Avila, had a miserable series in Fayetteville, Arkansas two weeks ago with a ton of strikeouts. The sweet-swinging left-hander had a pair of hits and drove in two against the Vols on Thursday.

Matt Downs had cooled off in the last couple of weeks before dropping a 4-for-5 on UT that included a leadoff triple in the five-run sixth inning that blew the Vols away.

Alabama might not catch the Wildcats, who have already clinched a share of their first SEC East title since 1976, but it looks as if their confidence will be up heading into next week's tourney in Hoover, where the Crimson Tide is always dangerous.

It's been four years since Alabama played host to an NCAA regional, and Wells and his program would like to atone for that 2002 debacle, when it lost to Southeast Missouri (now Missouri State) and Florida Atlantic at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.

Another win this weekend should cement a host spot in two weeks, and possibly nail down a national seed that would keep the Crimson Tide at home right up to the College World Series.

** Ed. Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Press Register. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com.

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