Alabama took two of three from Tennessee in the opening round of SEC play but is reeling with pitching injuries as it faces a monumental task of preserving available pitchers during the three-game slate. The situation is a definite dilemma for a team that is winless (0-2) on the road this season and cancelled a midweek game with Mississippi Valley State Tuesday due to limited pitching availability.
Alabama coach Jim Wells was quoted during the week as saying that the team "just really doesn't have enough pitching to get through 18 innings."
Tide hurlers Brandon Belcher, Austin Hyatt, Austin Graham and Patrick Kelley are all likely out with injuries against No. 13 Ole Miss (16-7, 1-2) with only Hyatt having a slim chance of seeing the mound.
"He (Hyatt) has sat out quite a bit," Wells said. "I talked to the doctor and he said he wouldn't be able to throw and then I talked to him again and it was a maybe so we'll see. But either way, the best case scenario is an inning or maybe even an out."
While depth may be a serious issue, Alabama has still been able to boast a team ERA of 3.02 and Friday night starter Miers Quigley is undefeated with four wins in 2007. Quantity may be a problem, but the normal Alabama quality is still a reality.
Tide ace Tommy Hunter has recently taken on a new role because of the limited options. The Indiana native is now in the bullpen as the Alabama closer. His durability is allowing him to see all possible circumstances as he tossed 140-plus pitches last week in outings on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
"They're still a solid pitching staff," Rebel head coach Mike Bianco said. "Their numbers are very good. I think Hunter out of the bullpen gives them another option and shows you how talented he is. He can start or close. I know they've got some injuries, but they certainly still have enough to be very good."
Wells understands Hunter's importance and is currently trying to put him in the best situation to help the team win.
"There are some health issues and Tommy gives us the best chance to win in the pen," Wells said. "If the game was seven innings, then he would start and throw all seven, but with nine, him in the pen is valuable if we can be in a good position late in the game. Had he not been available Friday night in Tennessee, we probably wouldn't have won that game."
Alabama has overcome these problems to recently earn a national ranking and put together a decent record. However, the friendly home-field environment made it easier on the team with the Tide falling to both Southern Miss and Samford in contests played outside Tuscaloosa. Twenty-two of Alabama's first 24 games were inside Sewell-Thomas Stadium. Wells recognizes the difficulty that the Oxford trip will bring.
"Things will be different on the road this week against a good team," Wells said. "Traveling to this environment will be new to some guys that are having their first time around. We don't have a lot of veterans that understand the mental toughness it takes to win on the road. Our hope is to have some success and get better for later in the year."
One player who has been around and also had success against Ole Miss is Tide spark plug Emeel Salem. The leadoff center fielder is hitting .394 and tied for second on the team with four home runs. Once on base, Salem remains a problem with 18 stolen bases already this season.
"Emeel Salem has been one of the top hitters in this league the past couple years," Rebels Friday night starter Will Kline said. "He runs pretty well, and he's an important part of their offense. We're going to try and do our best to keep him off base because he's the catalyst to jumpstart that offense. If we can keep him off base, we should give ourselves a pretty good shot to win."
Other than Salem, Alabama features six more sticks that hit above .300 and has connected for 24 home runs as a team while holding opponents to only half that with 12 round trippers.
"They have good stolen base numbers and have some guys from last year that are filling different roles," Bianco said. "Some new guys who are doing well too. Statistically, it's hard to see too many things that they don't do well. I think they're fielding .960-something, so that might be the only negative thing, but everything else looks really good. When you look at their numbers, they look very similar to our numbers; batting average, stolen bases, pitching numbers."
With Bianco trying to put his finger on exactly the make-up of Alabama, Wells expects to see a lot of good pitching and aggressive at-bats from Ole Miss. In saying, the experienced skipper is hoping for more concentration out of his young players, especially on the road.
"They are a dominant pitching team and will be quite a test," Wells said. "Their pitching just keeps repeating with excellent pitches. They limit the number of good pitches for you to hit. Ole Miss has always been a very aggressive team at the plate and the crowds are good.
"It will help us move forward, but we have our hands full going over there this week. The guys just need to be ready mentally. We are getting better this season and after some guys return I see things improving. We are a little inexperienced which causes errors until we learn how to play every pitch."
With the Tide battling road woes and lineup difficulty, Ole Miss is actually the one lower in the division standings. That pressure isn't bothering Kline as he is getting revved up for the atmosphere and excitement of Friday night conference play.
"I feel great, and it will be fun with the crowd and Alabama fans being here and it being hostile," Kline said. "It's another Friday in the SEC and that's how they're suppose to be. It's supposed to be intense and runs are supposed to be hard to come by, and hopefully we can score more than they can.
"If we can get a win on Friday night, we'll be even in SEC and looking good, better than we started out last year. Alabama is a great ball club with a great coach. The way they play the game is similar to how we do, so it should be fun."
Friday: Will Kline (3-0, 1.93) vs. Miers Quigley (4-0, 2.17), 6:30 p.m.
Saturday: Lance Lynn (2-2, 2.06) vs. Bernard Robert (3-3, 3.64), 1:30 p.m.
Sunday: Brett Bukvich (3-1, 2.88) vs. TBA, 1:30 pm.
Alabama took two of three from Ole Miss in 2005 at Oxford and swept the Rebels last season in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss knocked the Tide from last year's SEC tournament en route to winning the title.
Tide Rolls into Oxford for Weekend Tilt
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