Bama baseball begins fall practice

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The defending Southeastern Conference Western Division champion Alabama Crimson Tide baseball team will begin preparations for the 2002-03 baseball season as fall practice begins Tuesday, September 17.

The fall season is scheduled to run for four weeks, with intra-squad games each weekend beginning Friday, Sept. 20. The team will practice Tuesday through Friday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Saturday scrimmage times will generallly be at 10 a.m.

The Crimson Tide will return five everyday starters and five pitchers off last year's squad that posted a 51-15 overall record and captured its 10th SEC Western Division championship. Alabama also won its sixth SEC Tournament championship with a 6-2 win over South Carolina in the title game. It was UA's fifth post-season title under Coach Jim Wells, who was named 2002 SEC Coach of the Year.

"I am looking forward to the beginning of fall practice," Wells said. "We have a roster of 45 players, so there are a lot more guys to look at than past years. We have more depth and there are a lot more positions up for grabs."

Junior Peter Stonard (6-0, 195, Clayton, Missouri) headlines the list of returnees for the Crimson Tide. As a sophomore, Stonard appeared in 56 games and led Alabama with a .411 (97-for-236) batting average, the second-highest single-season average in the modern era. Stonard, the fifth UA player to hit .400 in a season, also added five home runs and 42 RBI and led the team with 42 doubles.

Stonard was named Second Team All-American by the American Baseball Coaches Association and was an ABCA First-Team All-South Region selection. He was also a Second-Team All-SEC pick as a sophomore.

Stonard, who will work at second base and center field this fall, increased his stock this summer by winning the Cape Cod League Most Valuable Player Award and batting title. Stonard batted .348, while leading the Cotuit Kettleers to the Western Division title.

He was tabbed as the CCBL's ninth-best prospect in the survey of professional scouts by Baseball America. Stonard was also named to Baseball America's Summer College All-America squad.

"We have to decide what we are going to do with Peter Stonard," Wells added. If we keep him at second base, which we would like to do, then we need to find someone that can play centerfield. If we go with Stonard in center field, then we obviously need a second baseman.

"Stonard is an excellent player and can play both positions. We need to find the best available player to play the other position, whether its second base or centerfield."

In addition to Stonard, Alabama returns four more everyday starters from last year's NCAA Regional squad. Senior right fielder Travis Garner (5-11, 190, Sturgis, Miss.) played in 65 games last year and batted .323 with six home runs and 31 RBI. He also led the team with 26 stolen bases. Senior designated hitter Beau Hearod (5-10, 190, Jennings, La.) is Alabama's leading returning power source from last year. As a junior, Hearod batted .330 with 12 home runs and 54 RBI in 60 games. Junior shortstop Adam Pavkovich (6-0, 160, Venice, Fla.) and sophomore third baseman Allen Rice (5-10, 175, Pelham) return in the infield. Pavkovich hit .278 with six home runs and 31 RBI in 65 games last year, while Rice batted .247 and had 18 RBI in 56 games.

The position with the biggest question mark is who replace 2002 Johnny Bench Award winner and All-American Jeremy Brown, who committed only one error behind the plate in his final 123 collegiate games. Brown, who batted .320 with 11 home runs and 64 RBI, was a supplemental first-round draft pick by the Oakland Athletics.

The battle for Brown's replacement will likely be between a pair of transfers Bobby Burns (6-0, 190, Dixie State College) and Al Hecklinski (Sr., 6-1, 210, UAB) and senior John Marshall (6-0, 185, Dallas, Texas).

The remainder of the infield is loaded with talent and depth, with the addition of newcomers Billy Hogan (Fr., 6-4, 200, Newman Smith HS, Carrollton, Texas), Evan Bush (Fr., 6-1, 185, Southside HS, Gadsden) and junior college transfer Nathan Meiners (Jr., 6-0, 200, Delgado Community College). Hogan and Bush were both listed among Baseball America's Top 100 High School prospects. Senior Carlos Sosa (6-1, 195, Vera Cruz, Mexico) and sophomore Zac Welch (6-3, 225, Wellington, Ala.) also return in the infield.

"With the addition of Bush and Hogan, there is a lot of depth in the infield," Wells added. "We have the luxury of a couple of other guys playing another infield position or moving to the outfield."

In addition to Stonard and Garner, the Alabama outfield also includes senior Grant Redding (5-10, 180, Homewood), junior Chad White (6-2, 185, Prattville) and sophomore Gabe Scott (6-1, 189, Lake Charles, La.).

Redding hit .421 with two home runs and 18 RBI in 38 games last year, while Scott batted .381 with eight RBI in 23 games. White appeared in 34 games and was one of the Tide's most productive players in the post season. He finished the year with a .330 batting average, 17 RBI and four outfield assists.

Sophomore Spencer Pennington (1B/OF, 6-4, 215, Fayette) and freshman Brandon Avalos (OF, 6-2, 185, Tuscaloosa) will join the Alabama baseball team this spring. Both are playing football this falla and will not be involved in fall baseball practice.

On the mound, Alabama will have to replace one of the best pitchers in school history, right-hander Lance Cormier (17 GS, 11-3, 3.28 ERA, 129 IP, 85 strikeouts), who graduated as UA's all-time leader for appearances, wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. He logged a school record 129 innings on the mound last year before being taken in the fourth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Fellow senior right-hander Shane Sanders (19 G, 8-4, 3.67), who graduated last spring, proved to be on the league's top No. 3 starters, despite losing his final three starts of the season.

Much of the slack will be taken up by 2002 Freshman All-American Taylor Tankersley (LHP, 6-1, 195, So., Vicksburg, Miss.), who tied the Alabama single-season record last year for wins by a freshman with eight. Tankersley appeared in 25 games and compiled an 8-5 record with a 2.62 ERA. He also added seven saves and was tough on left-handers out of the pen.

"We have some holes to fill in the pitching staff," Wells said. "If we move Tankersley into a starting role, then we must find someone to replace him in the bullpen. If he stays in the pen, then we need to find another starter. Jeffrey Norris (Jr., LHP, 6-1, 175) was our No. 2 starter last year and Brent Carter (LHP, So., 6-3, 185) is certainly a candidate to pitch on the weekends this year."

Norris (14 G, 11 GS, 6-1, 3.34 ERA) was a great story for the Crimson Tide last season. He emerged onto the scene the first week of April and helped the Crimson Tide to Western Division title and the SEC Tournament Championship. He earned a save against Florida in the tournament semifinals and then beat South Carolina the next with a complete-game effort.

Carter (17 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 3.31 ERA) won both his starts last year, including a pressure-packed 7-2 win over Florida Atlantic to force the if necessary game at the Tuscaloosa Regional in the NCAA Tournament.

Right-handers Jared Woodward (Jr., 5-11, 170, Tuscaloosa) and Brian Reed (Sr., 6-1, 205) are back with experience out of the bullpen. Reed (5-0, 1.71 ERA, 51.1 IP, 43 K) was the chief closer last year, recording a team-high nine saves in 27 appearances. Woodward (23 G, 9 GS, 6-1, 4.52 ERA, 65.2 IP, 57 K) was used as a spot-starter and reliever in each of his first two seasons and will likely continue in that role this year.

Newcomers Allen Ponder (Fr., RHP, 6-4, 230, Opelika), Seth Johnson (Jr., RHP, 6-1, 205, Dixie State College) and Ryan Beagle (LHP, 5-10, 180, Shelton State) will also battle for time in the rotation. Junior Martin LaRocca (RHP, 6-0, 160, Metarie, La.), who missed the entire 2002 season with an injury, could also be a valuable arm once he returns from his injury.

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