Bama Looks Like Underdog

This is not going to be easy for Alabama. In fact, despite its Number Four national seed and its desired home standing for this NCAA Super Regional, the Crimson Tide baseball team looks like an underdog against North Carolina.

Look at the rest of the NCAA bracket and you won't find any other national seed taking on a team ranked as high as Number Five, as the Tar Heels are, or a team with 48 wins. Only Rice and Clemson, the tourney's top two seeds, have more wins than North Carolina.

Alabama will benefit from being the host team at this Super Regional, but, ironically, they would not be the home team more than once. The Crimson Tide will bat last in tonight's SR opener (6 p.m. CDT, ESPN), but after losing a coin flip on Thursday, Alabama will be the "visitor'' in Saturday's 6 p.m. game (espn 2) and again on Sunday, if the game is necessary.

Bizarre.

What's the point in working your tails off to get a home Super Regional if you're not going to be the home team twice in the best-of-three series?

Obviously Jim Wells and his club has bigger worries than what shade of jersey they'll be wearing this weekend, starting with 6-6 lefty Andrew Miller.

It's not just that Miller brings 96 mph gas, but he also has a wicked slider to go along with that. Vanderbilt southpaw David Price, whom the Tide beat 9-4 earlier this year, had similar fastball credentials, but not the 90 mph slider.

In his final eight regular-season starts, Miller went 7-1 with a 1.59 ERA, allowing just 10 earned runs over 56 2/3 innings. He beat nationally ranked Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami and North Carolina State in that streak, which would roughly amount to Wade LeBlanc beating Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina in the same span.

There is a ray of hope in facing Miller (12-2, 2.26 ERA). The gangly kid, who was selected number six overall by the Detroit Tigers in the draft this week, has allowed nine earned runs in his last 14 innings. He was roughed up by North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament, then rebounded to easily get the win in a 14-4 decision over Winthrop last weekend.

Speaking of Winthrop, the Tar Heels and Tide have it as a common opponent this year. Carolina crunched the Eagles by a combined 28-6 last weekend in NCAA Regional play after Winthrop scored an 12-8 win in 11 innings earlier in the season. Winthrop won two of three in Alabama's season-opening series, outscoring the Tide 17-16 in a high-scoring series.

The Tide's LeBlanc (11-0, 2.62) will try to remain undefeated when he faces Miller tonight in a matchup that ESPN not only jumped on but also put into its prime time slot. The four-letter network has Gary Thorne, Jeff Brantley and others in town to call the action this weekend.

Tommy Hunter is like the kid in the candy store in this series. The chunky, fun-talking Alabama freshman is the only starter in the first two games who wasn't selected in the top 61 picks of the draft.

Hunter (10-3, 3.10), who has been a huge find for Alabama this season, will face big right-hander Daniel Bard (8-3, 3.47) in Saturday's game.

Does Hunter think he's got to match Bard pitch for pitch?

"I think this guy's consistent 92 (mph) to 95-96,'' Hunter said. "There's no way in hell I'm gonna match him. It's just a matter of doing what you do. Getting guys out, letting them get themselves out. I'm not going to dominate a game like that. I'm just going to get the ground balls I normally get.''

Postscript on Tide softball: 2006 will be remembered as the year Alabama might have been one pitch away from something great. Instead of retiring little Erin Dyer of Northwestern, Tide pitcher Chrissy Owens gave up her first home run of the season to the wiry outfielder on what looked like a half swing.

Owens had been dominant in relief up to that point, making coach Patrick Murphy's decision to start Stephanie VanBrakle come into question. But like we used to say when I was a kid, the faster the come, the harder they go. Dyer just kind of made contact with Owens' high heat, didn't even follow through, but the resulting energy unleashed a home run ball to center field with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.

We're not saying Alabama would have gone on and lost in the championship round, as Northwestern did, but the Crimson Tide would have been riding a surge of confidence and emotion as it proceeded in the tournament.

As it was, the seventh-inning homer became the kiss of death for Murphy's club. It lost in extras to the Wildcats, then found itself paired against a seething mad Nunber One UCLA team that lost to Tennessee well after midnight on the night Alabama and Northwestern played 11 innings.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and is a regular contributor to 'BAMA Magazine and to BamaMag.com


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