Alabama Baseball: Freezing Start Possible

The University of Alabama baseball team is scheduled to open its season with a three game set against Georgia State at Sewell-Thomas Stadium beginning at 6:30 Friday night in what is forecasted to be freezing weather.

Some Southern baseball coaches were miffed at a new NCAA rule passed last year that will go into effect after this season. That rule says that no team can begin practice before February 1, and that no team may begin its season before the last Friday in February. The rule was designed to impinge on warmer climate schools' ability to get a head start by practicing and playing early, but perhaps coaches will warm to the idea after playing in near-freezing weather this weekend.

Alabama is trying to defend its regular season Southeastern Conference Championship from a year ago, and advance on its NCAA tournament performance from last year where the Tide earned a number four national seed and made it to the Super Regionals before losing to eventual national champion runners-up North Carolina.

Tide Coach Jim Wells and two of his all-star candidates, pitcher Tommy Hunter and centerfielder Emeel Salem, participated Monday in the first ever Alabama Sports Writer's Association baseball media day at the Hoover Met.

Hunter, a sophomore, will be Alabama's Friday night starter and number one pitcher entering the season. He won 10 games for Alabama as a freshman, and spent the summer as a reliever on the USA baseball team that won a gold medal in international competition in Cuba.

After starting for Bama and pitching in relief all summer Hunter's arm needed a rest and he did not pitch any the entire fall. He has recently resumed throwing and will get the start Friday night even as he tries to ramp his velocity and stamina back to top levels.

"Saturday in our scrimmage I had 78 pitches in seven innings and it felt good," Hunter said. "The velocity wasn't back to where it was. I still have a little time to get that up, but overall it was good. I'm still not ready to go 100 pitches in a game but it will be there."

Hunter steps into the role held by Wade LeBlanc for the past three years. LeBlanc was able to go deep in most of his starts for Alabama and that usually saved the pitching staff for later games. Now Hunter moves into the Friday night role, and pitcher-turned-outfielder-turned-pitcher Brandon Belcher is also expected to move into the starting rotation.

"We've got to come up with five or six guys and find out who's best out of the pen and determine who is one, two and three," Wells said. "Belcher's gotta be one of those guys."

Either Casey Kebodeaux and Miers Quigley will be the third starter for the first weekend of play. Senior Bernard Robert who started in the Saturday spot last season will be out of the rotation for the first couple of weeks of the season, Wells said. His practice time in the fall took a back seat to Academic work and he is getting back into pitching shape.

One of the most important dire needs for Alabama this year will be a catcher to replace Kody Valverde. Wells brought in two guys for that job, Vincent DiFazzio and Jared Avchen, but both missed the fall with injuries and DiFazzio will not play at all this season.

Avchen is just now coming back from a broken bone in his foot.

"He caught four innings on Friday, five innings on Saturday and 12 innings on Sunday. I certainly think Avchen can come on and help us," Wells said.

Ryan Rhoden, who played in the outfield last season and was an emergency catcher and a catcher in high school had been working behind the plate.

Moving around the horn, Wells said the starting lineup would probably be freshman Jake Smith would at third, senior Greg Paiml at shortstop, sophomore Jeff Texada at second, senior Matt Bentley at first, Belcher in left, Salem at center and sophomore Kent Matthes in right field.

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