Leadoff Walks Spell Trouble for Alabama Baseball in NCAA Tournament Loss to UCF

Leadoff Walks Spell Trouble for Alabama Baseball in NCAA Tournament Loss to UCF
Alabama starting pitcher Greg Farone (26) in a game against LSU.
Alabama starting pitcher Greg Farone (26) in a game against LSU. / Alabama Athletics

Eight free passes is a less than ideal mark to go on the ledger of a pitching staff in an NCAA Tournament opener. Especially when said free passes consist partly of four leadoff walks, three of which eventually came around to score. That's what sealed Alabama baseball's fate in an 8-7 loss against UCF in the Tallahassee Regional on Friday.

The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds wasted no time getting down to business, as five combined runs were scored between the two sides in the first inning alone. Overall, they recorded 20 combined hits through nine innings. The Knights (36-19) grabbed the first two runs in the first frame when a pair of two-out walks came back to bite Crimson Tide starter Greg Farone.

In the home half, after the first two Alabama (33-23) hitters reached, designated hitter Kade Snell hit a two-out, three-run home run to get the runs back and give his squad the lead in one shot. UCF took hold of the advantage once more in the very next frame. A leadoff single gave way to a two-run blast by center fielder Andrew Williamson, making the score 4-3 Knights through an inning and a half.

Farone never quite found the mark, still managing six punchouts in four innings pitched. However, he finished with six earned runs and a trio of walks on his final line. "He was probably overthrowing a little bit right there," head coach Rob Vaughn said during the game. "We skipped his [bull]pen on Saturday... He threw a pen this week. He told me, "I feel great, I just feel a bit out of sync.'"

His workload had exceeded 100 pitches in his final regular season start against Auburn earlier this month, and he then turned around and started the SEC Tournament game against South Carolina. "He's been our guy all year," Vaughn said. "He's done such a great job of minimizing."

The Crimson Tide got the next two runs, both on solo home runs: one by shortstop Justin Lebron in the third inning, and one by center fielder TJ McCants in the fourth. Lebron's home run was his 12th of the season and one of his four hits on the evening, making the Florida native the most consistent performer in the lineup during the contest. It was following McCants' pull-side shot, which gave Alabama a 5-4 lead, that the leadoff walks began to rear their head.

Farone walked the first Knights hitter of the fifth inning, No. 2 hitter Matt Prevesk. The next spot in the order delivered, owing to an RBI double by designated hitter Matt Cedarburg. UCF added another run, and took the lead back, with another run-scoring double by nine-hole hitter Mikey Kluska that plated Cedarburg.

The back-and-forth affair continued in the home seventh with Lebron recording a two-out RBI single to make it 6-6. The top of that inning featured the lone leadoff runner Alabama let aboard via a walk who did not eventually score, and the Knights left 10 men on base in the game. However, right-handed Crimson Tide reliever Braylon Myers walked the first man he faced in inning number eight (Kluska), and he ultimately came home on a Cedarburg groundout.

Entering the bottom of the eighth down 7-6, the Alabama bats once again got the run back thanks to a two-out bloop single from first baseman Will Hodo. One of the main positives in the losing effort for the Crimson Tide was that the team got big, timely two-out hits throughout the affair. Hodo tied the game again, but that would be the final run for the designated home team Friday at Dick Howser Stadium.

It came down to the ninth inning to decide things in the regulation innings, and UCF once again took advantage of a leadoff walk, this one issued by southpaw Alton Davis II. That runner scored on a pinch-hit single off the bat of Andrew Sundean, filling Williamson's spot in the order against a lefty. Lebron singled with two gone in the bottom of the ninth, but William Hamiter saw his 10-game hitting streak come to an official end with an unassisted groundout to first base in the next plate appearance. He was 0-5 out of the cleanup spot.

Vaughn had high praise for Lebron, who returned to his home state with a major impact in his NCAA Tournament debut. "The ability's real, but the human is what's so special," Vaughn said. "Special kid, special player... The moment just doesn't get big for that kid."

Alabama is not done yet when it comes to the 2024 season but has no more room for error from here in the regional round. Hard-throwing righty Ben Hess, who enjoyed a resurgent month of May, will take the ball in a do-or-die game against Stetson on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. CT. The Hatters (40-21) fell 7-2 on Friday to regional host and No. 8 national seed Florida State. The loser leaves town and closes the book on its campaign, while the winner will live to fight another day, though the lack of margin for defeat will remain for the duration of its stay in Tallahassee.

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Will Miller


Will Miller is a senior at the University of Alabama. He has experience covering a wide array of Crimson Tide sports, including football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics and soccer. He joined BamaCentral in the spring of 2023 and is also a freelance UFC interviewer.