TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The fans call him ‘The Viper.’
And why shouldn’t they? With his sidearm throwing style and vicious ability to strike out batters for Alabama baseball, it’s no wonder why junior closing pitcher Chase Lee has become a popular player among Crimson Tide baseball fans.
Lee said he’s not quite sure when the nickname originated, but that he believes it was during his first season with the Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
“I think it’s funny,” Lee chuckled. “It’s a cool name. Guys out in the clubhouse call me that and I enjoy it. I know it started when I was in Bethesda for summer ball and it has to do something with I throw to the side and they made the correlation between a sidewinder and myself.
“I’m not really sure how it blew up the way it did — I thought it was a joke at first — but it’s pretty funny to see how they’ve bought into it.”
In actuality, the nickname began even before his days with the Big Train, dating back to his first days with the team in the spring of 2019. Lee might not be aware of just how early Crimson Tide fans began referring to him as 'The Viper,' but still approves of the nickname that the Alabama faithful issued him.
This season with the Crimson Tide, Lee has become almost automatic on the mound. If the Crimson Tide is up in the late innings of a game and Lee steps onto the mound, a victory seems imminent. With a 6-0 record and six saves to his name in 16 appearances, Lee has an ERA of 1.33 and has only allowed four hits and four runs in 27.0 innings pitched.
Three of each of those runs and hits came from one game, the Crimson Tide’s 11-0 loss to Kentucky back on April 25. Aside from that game, Lee has been nearly perfect this season.
While Lee has certainly seen success in the gauntlet that is SEC baseball, one would think that he was at one time a highly sought-after high school prospect. In actuality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
After graduating from McAdory High School located in McCalla, Ala., Lee received no scholarship offers for his baseball abilities.
“Out of high school I didn’t have any offers so I decided to go to Alabama for engineering,” Lee said. “I did aerospace engineering and so there’s either Alabama, Auburn or Alabama at Huntsville so there’s only three schools in the state that really have it. Growing up an Alabama fan, this was the clear-cut choice and I just came to be a student.
“My parents kinda forced me to go to the tryouts and at least give it a shot. Of course, I didn’t make it. I didn’t even have an offer out of high school — I wasn’t very good.”
Despite not having much confidence in his baseball abilities, Lee went to try out for the Crimson Tide to play as a walk-on. With little to no warning for the Alabama baseball coaches — including head coach Brad Bohannon — Lee simply appeared out of nowhere to try out for the team.
“Chase came to our walk-on tryout and he truly just showed up,” Bohannon said. “We didn’t know anything about him and took some ground balls at shortstop and had an easy arm and we took him down to the bullpen and put him on the mound and at that point he just wasn’t ready to even throw an inning in a scrimmage. He was 80 miles an hour and was loose and wimpy.”
Despite clearly not having what it took at the time to earn a spot on Alabama’s roster, Lee remained determined. Instead of shrugging it off and putting his college baseball aspirations behind him, instead he asked Bohannon for tips on what he could do to possibly improve his game for the next year.
“I just kinda went up to him and said ‘What do I gotta do to even have a shot,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘I realize that I’m not good. Do I even have a chance?’ He said ‘The only chance that you’ll ever have is learning how to pitch from a sidearm slot.’”
Lee admitted that at the time he had never heard of sidearm pitching but went to work right away building himself up for next season. With the help of some high school coaches, Lee slowly but surely strengthened his arm and changed his form to that of a sidewinder.
It was one of Lee’s high school coaches that first informed him of the club team on campus. After sending the club leader an email asking if he could try out, Lee soon received a reply and made the team after trying out for them.
During his time with the club team was when Lee truly started showing that he had the potential to pitch at the college level. Lee finished the season with a 7-0 record and an impressive 0.21 ERA and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player. More impressively, he was also selected as a Rawlings National Club Baseball Association First Team All-American.
Lee used his improvement on the mound to once again reach out to Bohannon.
“I had a really good year,” Lee recalled. “I had, like, 40 innings and gave up one run. And I just kind of reached out to [Bohannon] and said ‘Hey, here’s some video. I realize that I’m probably still not throwing hard enough or whatever it may be. Do you have any tips or things that I need to work on?’ I emailed him in May. I was like ‘Hey, this is where I’m at. I realize that I’m still a little ways away, can you point me in the right direction?’
“He said I still needed to throw harder and gain some weight and look the part. So I just emailed him and he responded with those tips and I started working again with my pitching coach and we went from there trying to figure out how to throw harder and get stronger.”
After all of that work, Lee finally made the team that September. Having completely changed his throwing style and improving his fastball from 80 miles per hour to up to 87, Bohannon finally believed that Lee had earned himself a spot on the roster.
In his freshman season at Alabama, Lee earned himself a 2.67 ERA in 22 appearances. He struck out 24 and walked just five and limited batters to a .241 batting average against him. In his sophomore season, Lee once again marginally improved, maintaining a 1.64 ERA and striking out 19 batters in just five appearances due to the season being shortened by COVID-19.
And now, in the midst of a highly-successful junior campaign on the mound, Lee has proven his value to the program and then some.
Lee said that after his three seasons at Alabama and after showing so much improvement from his high school days, Bohannon doesn’t like to talk about how he almost passed up on Lee.
“Coach Bo doesn’t like to talk about it,” Lee chuckled. “He said it takes away from the player that I am today. I enjoy looking back on where I came from and where I’m at and just and just remembering how good God has been to me and how good coaches and players around me to help me get to this spot. Coach Bo doesn’t like talking about it but I enjoy looking back and seeing where I come from.”
While Bohannon might not want to discuss Lee’s early days at Alabama, he has no problem saying how important he is to the team.
“Chase has just been invaluable,” Bohannon said. “Priceless. I’m hoping he can get some big outs for us going forward.”
While Lee's journey with Alabama baseball has been an interesting one, his journey in the world of baseball is far from over. This past weekend, Lee graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. However, he plans on trying his hand at professional baseball following the end of the season.
“My plan, Lord willing, is to get drafted after this season and then go play professional baseball for a little while and see kinda where that takes me,” Lee said. “I actually didn’t enjoy engineering as much as I thought I would.
"But right now the plan is to try to play professional baseball after this year.”
If Lee approaches professional baseball with the same determined mindset that he had in approaching Alabama, then there's no doubt that the young sidewinder has was it takes to make it to the next level.