TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Back on April 7, everything seemed to be going wrong for Alabama baseball.
The Crimson Tide wrapped up a 5-3 loss inside Sewell-Thomas Stadium to Louisiana-Monroe, the team’s ninth loss over a 10-game stretch. Since the start of Southeastern Conference play, Alabama was 2-7 in the league.
The team's energy level was nothing short of lackluster.
"Really disgusted with our effort today," Crimson Tide coach Bard Bohannon said following the loss to the Warhawks. "I'm responsible for getting the team ready to play — that's my job — and I obviously did a very, very poor job of having us ready to play today. We didn't pitch well enough early, we didn't swing the bats well enough and that's not a very good formula for winning a baseball game.”
That was then ...
Aside from Alabama's first SEC series at Arkansas, the Crimson Tide had played eight straight home games. After the loss to ULM, the team went on its first road trip in three weeks, to College Station for a three-game series at Texas A&M.
The Aggies don’t exactly have a stellar program this season, but the Crimson Tide wasn't exactly lighting anyone up either and could lose to anyone, anywhere, anytime. To diehard Crimson Tide baseball fans, the phrase ‘Here we go again’ was being uttered.
At the time, Bohannon noted that hitting the road could be, albeit unconventional, a way for his team to turn things around.
“That is weird but that sometimes can be a good thing,” Bohannon said. “It’s funny, when you go on the road there’s fewer distractions. When you’re home, you’ve got your buddies — more people [indecipherable]. We certainly need to try something different. Texas A&M’s a tough place to play. They have decent crowds right now I believe.
“Sometimes it can be refreshing just to have a change of scenery.”
Jump forward to today, and that change of pace seems to have made all the difference.
Alabama (23-13, 7-8 SEC) has won seven of its last eight games, including a sweep of the Aggies on the road. On top of midweek victories against both Samford and North Alabama, the Crimson Tide also bested Auburn two games to one in the team’s series last weekend.
The recent success has much more behind it than a trip to College Station, though.
Prior to the trip to Aggieland, Alabama was one of the SEC's worst hitting teams during its slump. The Crimson Tide wasn’t just losing, it was failing to produce any sort of offense.
During the 10-game stretch, the team put up more than four runs on only four occasions. In three of those games, Alabama scored one run or less. In a conference that is widely considered to be the best in college baseball, that's not enough, even with top-notch pitching.
All that seems to have changed, though as offensive production has improved dramatically. Over the last eight games, the Crimson Tide has put up only four runs once — its only loss over the stretch, a 5-4 to Auburn.
On April 13 following a 19-3 victory over Samford — the second-most runs scored in a game this season for Alabama — Bohannon said that his team was back right where it was supposed to be.
“Baseball is a funny game,” Bohannon said. “I think any old coach would tell you that hitting is contagious. You take a step back and now you’re like ‘Hey, we’ve got a bunch of hitters going through the league for the first time,’ and on top of that Arkansas and Ole Miss and whoever can really pitch. You get to this point and you see you’ve made some progress the last week-and-a-half and you look back at all those variables and you’re like, ‘Well, maybe we’re right where we’re supposed to be.’ I can just see it.”
Aside from second baseman Peyton Wilson and third baseman Zane Denton, who are both sophomores, the Crimson Tide’s bats were relatively quiet over the losing streak. Redshirt-junior catcher Sam Praytor and sophomore outfielder Owen Diodati, Alabama’s two power hitters, were two of the quietest of the team’s consistent contributors.
This past weekend against Auburn really exhibited how both have turned things around. Against the Tigers, Praytor was 5-for-12 with three runs and three RBIs. Against North Alabama on Tuesday, he batted 3-for-4 with one run and four RBIs.
The effort was enough to be named the SEC Player of the Week.
Diodati was 4-for-14 with one run and six RBIs.
With the top four hitters clicking again, it's no wonder why Alabama has been able to win so many games of later, including some in dramatic fashion.
“I think two weeks ago Zane Denton and Peyton Wilson were the only two guys we could really count on and now you’re seeing multiple guys that are seeing the ball better,” Bohannon said. “They’re making better decisions in what to swing at, getting better pitches to hit and not chasing out of the zone as much and now you’re getting some production from other guys and some of these — you know, Peyton Wilson, [William] Hamiter, Denton are getting to hit with people on-base instead of leading off innings or in with nobody on and we got the right guys up with people on base.”
Along with hitting, Alabama’s pitching is aiming for more consistency. Crimson Tide ace Connor Prielipp made his much-anticipated return this past Saturday following an extended absence due to an undisclosed injury. While Prielipp’s numbers were far from stellar — one inning, one hit, one run, one walk, one strikeout — being back at the front of the rotation could be crucial for the whole staff.
Starter Antoine Jean, who had also been out due to injury, is also looking to get back into a groove and saw action in several games over the past couple of weekends.
That being said, Alabama is becoming more of a complete team with every game, and is on track to make its first appearance in the SEC tournament since 2016 — a sign that years of rebuilding the program might finally be behind it.
The Crimson Tide still has many ways it can improve — primarily in avoiding giving up early runs and being forced to play from behind — but with the improved bats and return of some key starting pitchers, Alabama has a chance to build up some momentum at the key part of the season.
Following the team’s close 8-6 come-from-behind victory over North Alabama on Tuesday, Bohannon noted that the close win was something that his team probably would not have been able to pull off a few weeks ago
“These guys have a will to win,” Bohannon said. “They’re competitive and we’ve won a bunch of games late. Gosh, I think we’ve had four or five walk-offs and obviously won late today so, you know, you just can’t quantify that — having that belief late in the game — that when you have the lead you’re going to close it out on defense or when you’re trailing that you can score and win it.
“It’s just a really, really valuable intangible asset that this team has. We’ve had more experience with it than I would like — had more experience in giving up runs early and playing from behind — but to our kids’ credit, they’ve done a good job with that.”