Where Is Tide Baseball Headed?

I might not have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. An eight-run inning for Alabama baseball. The titanic eruption -- by current Crimson Tide standards -- included hits with the bases loaded by Brandon May and Kent Matthes that drove in five of the runs off South Carolina in the sensational sixth of a 10-5 Alabama win.

Alabama had gone 3-for-14 in its previous 12 games with the bases loaded, including an 0-for-3 in Wednesday's 5-2 loss to Samford.

`"Valhalla,'' Alabama Coach Jim Wells called the sixth. `"Euphoria.''

For a guy who manages a team that had scored two runs in its previous game against a starter with an ERA around 7.00, blowing up the ace (Harris Honeycutt) and a top reliever (Will Atwood) of the fourth-ranked team in the country was euphoria indeed.

In one complete trip through the order, every Alabama batter reached via a hit or walk, or sacrificed runners up. After batting around once, Alex Avila came up again and was hit in the helmet with a pitch. Avila homered in the fourth -- the Tide's 29th solo shot out of 40 homers this season -- so he wound up scoring three runs in the space of three innings.

Kent Matthes had a single and a run early in the inning and a ringing three-run double to the right-center gap to polish off the eight spot.

"I'II tell you what, the way we've played this year I feel like we can beat any team in the nation and lose to inferior opponents,'' Matthes said. "Everybody's sick of losing, especially after (sharing the SEC regular season title) last year. We had really had enough.''

The bigger question -- beyond a rare Friday-night offensive outburst -- is where is this team headed?

Does Friday's win over a quality opponent turn some hidden corner for this team that has labored to score runs? Or will it simply be an aberration in the midst of a slippery slide?

Today's 4 p.m. game and Sunday's 2 p.m. series finale will shed a great light on what's in store for Wells' club the rest of the way.

Today would be the day Bernard Robert would take the ball and eat up some more innings. Wells did what he had to do and dismissed Robert from the team this week for a not-the-first-time violation of team rules.

It had to hurt to, because Robert had been a solid starter since rejoining the rotation, typically throwing deep on Saturday's and keeping Alabama in games always.

Instead of Robert, Wells will call on struggling left-hander Miers Quigley today. Quigley hasn't won since the conference opener against Tennessee on March 16, and the Crimson Tide hasn't won one of his starts since the series opener at Ole Miss the following week.

Beyond Quigley, it appears Austin Hyatt is the lone available starter for Sunday's game, and the bullpen is mighty thin after that.

A series of bad breaks has beset the Bama pitching staff this season, from Brandon Belcher's forearm tightness after his first start, to Patrick Kelly's broken hand, to Austin Graham's lingering injury, to Hyatt's hiatus to the dismissal of Robert.

Through it all, Alabama's pitching has actually held fairly steady, though Wells has carried on his stubborn tradition of using only a select few trusted arms.

If there's a finger to point with this team it is clutch hitting. Its propensity for solo homers and its consistently poor performance with runners in scoring position has been the real nemesis.

You could see the frustration etched on Wells' face as the dearth of clutch hitting took seed and spread for much of the middle portion of this season.

However, Friday night's game was another step in the right direction, following on the heels of a huge first-inning outburst last Sunday at Auburn. Alabama jumped LSU in the SEC standings to reach seventh place with 11 games to play.

You know the Crimson Tide's pitching issues are going to make it difficult as the season winds down to stay among the top eight in the SEC and reach the conference tournament and a probable NCAA berth.

Following on the heels of a 6-7 football season and the basketball team's dip to the NIT, Wells and the baseball team can create a bright light at the end of a long athletic season. Do they have the fire to do it?

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

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