Baseball Trying to Catch on Before SEC Play

The Alabama baseball team plays the last game of its pre-conference schedule Wednesday night with a few more question marks than Crimson Tide Head Coach Jim Wells would like heading into Southeastern Conference play against Tennessee this weekend.

Alabama (13-6) will travel to play Samford at Joe Lee Griffin field a 6 p.m., and begins its SEC regular season title defense this weekend with a three-game home series against Tennessee coming off a week in which it lost four out of five games, including dropping two out of three last weekend to Nebraska.

But Alabama was in a similar situation a year ago, having been swept by Nebraska in Lincoln the week before opening league play. Which way the 2007 baseball team's fortunes turn will depend primarily on two BIG factors: pitching and catching.

On the pitching front, Wells has vacillated between making sophomore ace pitcher Tommy Hunter a starter or a reliever, and will continue to look at different pitching options.

Brandon Belcher, a senior lefty who was being counted on as a weekend starter, has been injured since first pitching in the second game of the year and his return is still up in the air. It was originally thought the injury would only keep Belcher out for a couple of weeks, but he still has pain in his pitching arm.

"I've turned from worrying about when he's going to get back to ‘Let's find a way without him,'" Wells said.

Sophomore Miers Quigley has logged the most innings for Alabama at 31 and a third innings pitched, and has been solid with a 3-0 record and 1.15 ERA in five starts. Hunter has a 1.80 ERA in four starts and three relief appearances in 30 innings of work.

Bernard Robert (2-2, 4.50 ERA), Casey Kebodeaux (2-1, 1.33 ERA), Austin Hyatt (2-1, 1.77 ERA), Josh Copeland (0-1, 3.77 ERA), Will Stroup (0-0, 4.91 ERA) and Patrick Kelly (1-0, 10.80 ERA) have all pitched 10 or more innings for the Crimson Tide this year, but Kelly recently suffered a broken hand and Robert is the only one among those with previous starting experience in the SEC.

Alabama has had just short of open calls for help at catcher to help give the team some consistency behind the plate.

"The overall evaluation is we've got a few holes that we're trying to shore up," Wells said. "We're literally working out seven guys behind the plate right now. We're struggling a bit throwing guys out and blocking balls. That's a critical position."

Vinny DiFazzio, a top prospect signee, has been ruled out for the year due to a degenerative bone condition which hospitalized him over the Holidays. Bama has used Jared Avchen, the other catcher signed to replace Kody Valverde, and Ryan Rhoden, who played right field as a freshman last year, behind the plate.

Bama opponents have stolen successfully in 34 of 41 attempts, and Rhoden is the only catcher to have thrown out a base stealer. He has done so twice. The rest of Bama's caught stealings have been on pickoff plays.

Officially there have been only two passed balls (both charged to Rhoden), but the Tide has also had 19 wild pitches – which include some in the dirt that might possibly could have been blocked.

Alex Avila, who has played third, first and DH, along with practicing as a pitcher in a bullpen though not entering a game, has volunteered himself up to catch now. He caught an inning of a scrimmage on Tuesday and could get a chance in a game soon.

"We were out here yesterday and I got fired up. He might be able to do that," Wells said.

Avila said the idea of him catching, as he had done in his youth career, came up jokingly about a week ago, but got serious this week. He approached Wells about catching because it's where he has the most fun, he said.

"I came up (Monday) to him more seriously and we said let's try it out. (Monday) was the first time I've caught in a long time," Avila said. I thought it went pretty well. I was a little rusty but once I got the hang of it it was okay. I just think it's a lot of fun back there.

Kyle Moore was also working at catcher this week.

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