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Alabama's Andrew Pinckney (Aaron Fitt)

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Fitt: Resilient Alabama Looks Like Factor In SEC

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It felt like Alabama was playing catchup all weekend long. The Crimson Tide nearly came back from a late 6-0 deficit against Florida on Friday night, then overcame an early 3-0 hole to tie Saturday’s game in the middle innings, only to come up short in both contests. On Sunday, after twice erasing two-run deficits in the first four innings, the Tide finally took its first lead of the weekend in the fifth inning, then handed the game over to its top two bullpen arms.

And for a while, it looked like Bama’s 5-4 lead would hold up. But then Florida surged ahead once again with three runs in the seventh, taking the lead on Jud Fabian’s two-run homer and then tacking on an insurance run for good measure. It had to be demoralizing for an Alabama club that had fought so hard all weekend but had nothing to show for it, at least to that point.

“I’ll be honest, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut in the eighth inning, because you just want it so bad for the kids,” Alabama coach Brad Bohannon said. “As you get into league play, you play 30 games, and these wins and losses are precious, and everything’s amplified. I just wanted it so bad for the kids. I was like, ‘Guys, we’re too good to get swept at home, we’re too good to not have won one of these games.’ You certainly can’t have those thoughts, you’ve just got to get onto the next pitch, and our kids do a good job of that.”

In its two marquee series over the first five weeks of the season, Alabama hung tough with top-ranked Texas on the road and with No. 9 Florida, but in the eighth inning Sunday it found itself staring down the barrel at an 0-6 record in those two series.

But it turned out Bohannon was right: his club was too good to get swept again. And his players never stopped fighting, even after the latest gut punch. They just went back to work, getting a run back on Zane Denton’s solo homer in the eighth, then scoring twice in the ninth to take a dramatic and cathartic 8-7 victory — Alabama’s first win against Florida since 2015.

“I made a mistake in the field [in the eighth], so I told [reliever Jacob McNairy], ‘I’ll get you that run back,’” Denton said. “That’s just the way our whole team thinks, we never had a doubt, no matter how many runs we go down. We think we can win everything, no matter what.”

Denton’s homer breathed some life back into Alabama’s dugout in the bottom of the eighth, even though the Tide still trailed by 7-6 heading to the ninth. McNairy did his part to shut down the Gators in the top of the frame, and then Alabama made its final move. Andrew Pinckney did not budge as a Blake Purnell fastball hit him in the lower leg, then he limped his way to first base to jumpstart the rally. No. 9 hole hitter Bryce Eblin followed with a hard line-drive single to the right-center gap (his second big hit of the day, both of them screaming liners) to put men on the corners. Scrappy, skilled leadoff man Jim Jarvis executed a safety squeeze, dropping down a bunt that stayed just fair along the third-base line, allowing Pinckney to race home and tie the game.

Alabama’s Jim Jarvis gets down the game-tying squeeze bunt (Aaron Fitt)

Two batters later, Denton walked it off. With the bases loaded and sidewinding groundball machine Purnell on the mound, Florida elected to go with five infielders. “My plan was to get the ball in the air in the outfield deep enough to score a run,” Denton said. “That didn’t happen, but luckily found a hole and it all worked out.”

Denton pulled a grounder hard enough to easily get through the right side, scoring Eblin and setting off pandemonium at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, as Bama players mobbed Denton between first and second base. This was a very big win that played well enough to go 4-2 in those two big series against the Gators and Longhorns — but at least managed to avoid going 0-6. It’s easy to see that this team has guts.

“I really feel like we’re better than our statistics and better than our record. I couldn’t be more proud of the culture and the environment, and give the kids all the credit,” Bohannon said. “We just have a bunch of kids that love to play, they love to practice, and they love each other. It’s really that simple. In my coaching career, I don’t know that I’ve had a dugout that feels the way ours feels. So I think that gives us a chance over time to potentially be better than the sum of the parts.”

Which isn’t to say Alabama lacks quality parts. There is a lot to like about this edition of the Crimson Tide, and plenty of reason to believe this bunch can hold its own in the rugged SEC and make a run at its second straight regional.

For starters, I love Alabama’s middle infield of Jarvis at shortstop and Eblin at second base, two instinctive playmakers with range, arm strength and excellent actions. Eblin made a couple of challenging plays look easy on Sunday, handling a high chopper up the middle and making a perfect throw across his body for the out at first, and later making a diving stop on a tricky-hop hot-shot up the middle, then popping up and firing a strike to first. That was a particularly tricky play because Eblin was positioned on the shortstop side of the bag due to the shift. 

“He’s somebody that we think could hit in the top of the order for us as he gets more comfortable. We think he’s a true shortstop, and it’s the first time since i’ve been here that we’ve had two shortstops playing in the field at the same time,” Bohannon said. “He had an injury early in the season — he dove into home plate and bruised his shoulder capsule, missed two weeks —so he’s just now getting into playing shape. The longer you’re out, the longer it takes you to get back, and he was out of sync there for a couple games, but he’s somebody we think could be a good player.”

Jarvis makes all the routine plays but really dazzled with a running stop up the middle on Saturday, making a fluid spin and perfect throw to first for the out. He also makes the offense go out of the leadoff spot, where he’s a tough out with a knack for putting the ball in play and good speed. Jarvis is a classic polished California kid from a great baseball family (his brother Mike played at San Diego State and his brother Luke played at Auburn). Like his brothers before him, Jim is a gamer who make so many little winning plays.

“He’s on the really short list of kids that I’ve coached that just loves to play baseball,” Bohannon said. “I mean that kid is just smiling constantly on the baseball field, and you have to try unsuccessfully on days off to tell him to stay away from the field or the cage. He just truly loves baseball and loves his teammates, and has really developed himself into a really good player.”

Third baseman Denton is obviously another really good player with a strong track record of hitting. With line-drive machine Dominic Tamez in the 2-hole and Harvard transfer Tommy Seidl providing athleticism and competitive at-bats in the cleanup spot, Alabama has two quality righthanded bats flanking the switch-hitting Denton. Then Owen Diodati provides lefthanded power in the 5-hole. It’s not the murderer’s row that Ole Miss or Florida or Arkansas roll out, but it’s plenty formidable, with Denton as the centerpiece.

Zane Denton celebrates his walk-off single Sunday against Florida (Aaron Fitt)

“Zane led us in hitting last year, he just has a real feel to hit, he sees the ball well, he has really good hand-eye and he’s a switch-hitter,” Bohannon said. “And he’s a guy that got off to a slow start this year, has really heated up. I don’t think we can have a good offense without getting good production out of Denton and Tamez and Diodati. We’ve got a lot of other pieces, but those are the three guys that we need to drive in some runs. All three of them started out slow this year, give credit to Texas, that pitching staff had something to do with it. But those guys are starting to come on, and now you’re seeing our team offense come on a little bit.”

Diodati looks much leaner and more athletic than he did in the past, a product of tireless work off the field, Bohannon said. He’s become an average runner — I timed him at 4.2 seconds to first from the left side, and Bohannon said he’s capable of running a 6.7 60. He’s no longer just a DH; now he can play a serviceable left field, which gives Alabama more lineup flexibility and opens the DH spot for Stetson transfer Eric Foggo, who offers big righthanded pop (along with swing-and-miss). But Diodati is also a force to be reckoned with in the heart of the order, and he showed off serious bat speed this weekend, turning on a 97 mph Brandon Sproat fastball for a rocket double into the right-center gap on Saturday, then clobbering a two-run homer on a Brandon Neely slider that briefly tied the game in the fourth inning Sunday.

“He’s made some adjustments. You see it in practice before you see it in the game, and the last week and a half he’s done a good job of being more direct to the ball and using the whole field,” Bohannon said. “It’s the same message we’ve been giving him for a year and a half, but sometimes it clicks at different points for kids. He’s been really good the last three or four games, and I think he’s got a lot of ability.”

The biggest knock on Alabama is probably its lack of dominant starting pitching. But the rotation of Garrett McMillan, Antoine Jean and Grayson Hitt is competitive enough to give the Tide a chance in any given weekend, particularly since the defense is typically strong behind them (though it was a little sloppy Sunday). RHP McMillan (2-1, 3.00, 29-6 K-BB) is a strike-thrower with a 90-92 fastball, an excellent changeup and a solid breaker. Jean is a pitchability lefty who bumped 91 mph early Saturday but pitched at 86-89 with a plus changeup and a useful breaking ball at 77-80. 

And Hitt has the best stuff of the trio, with a high-spin fastball that sat 91-93 and bumped 94 on Sunday, along with a very good slider at 81-94 with bite and a bigger curve at 72-75 to disrupt hitters’ tempo. He pitched well Sunday to everyone except 3 and 4-hole hitters Sterlin Thompson and Wyatt Langford, who hit back-to-back doubles in the first and back-to-back homers in the fourth. But Hitt still hung in there and got through five innings, then handed a lead to Dylan Ray.

Bama likely won’t be counting upon its starters to carry too much of the load most weeks, because they have built this staff from the back forward. Ray, McNairy and lefty Hunter Furtado are real weapons in the ‘pen, with big-time stuff. Ray, a thick 6-foot-3, 230-pound righty with a high arm slot, is a warrior who attacked at 92-94 with a riding four-seamer, 87-89 with an effective running two-seamer, 76-78 with a good sharp curveball with depth, and 83 mph with a slider. He turned in two scoreless innings before the Gators got to him in his third frame Sunday.

Alabama bullpen anchor Jacob McNairy (Aaron Fitt)

McNairy, another physical righty, followed, showing off plus sink on a 93-94 fastball that bumped 95 from a three-quarters slot, an excellent diving changeup and a serviceable breaker.

Furtado has the highest ceiling on the staff, as a lean and still-projectable 6-foot-4, 185-pound lefthander with a live arm that produced 92-96 mph heat on Saturday, peaking at 97.

“We love Hunter, he’s got an electric arm,” Bohannon said. “His secondary stuff is what’s got to come on. He’s got a great fastball, and he flashes some good changeups and curveballs and cutters, but I think his fastball and his arm talent is a little ahead of his secondary stuff. But it’s gotten better since he’s been here, and I would think that he’ll be a different guy in May than he is right now. And I think he’s got a chance to be a monster next year.”

Freshman Luke Holman adds to power stuff in the bullpen, with a heater that bumps 95 and a hammer curveball, per Bohannon. The 6-4, 185-pound righty “has pitched like a freshman” at times, but “it’s coming.” And the highest-profile arm in the freshman class, 6-5 righty Ben Hess, is working his way into shape after getting derailed by a freak off-field injury during winter break. He’s made two appearances so far, and as he rounds into form, it opens up even more possibilities for this staff.

“We really like our bullpen, and probably have more stuff in the pen than we do at the front of the game, with Furtado and Dylan Ray and Jacob McNairy. Those are guys that are low to mid-90s guys and throw a bunch of strikes with multiple pitches. I’m not sure that we’re going to keep them all at the back end of the game, we’ll see how we pitch at the front end. It’s just hard to move guys around early in the season when you have those five-game weeks. We have a lot of faith that if we’re tied or have the lead in the middle of the game that we can piece together the back end. But you can’t be behind at the front end of the game all the time, so we’ll get it figured out as we go, but we have a lot of confidence in those guys.”

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