TUSCALOOSA — Alabama returns six men who threw more than 20 innings last season. One of those is suspended for its season-opening series against Valparaiso. Another spent the fall continuing his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Meet the Crimson Tide pitching staff, an enigma and the foremost concern of first-year coach Brad Bohannon as he prepares to open a new era at Sewell-Thomas Stadium on Friday.
“We’re less familiar with our pitching staff than most coaching staffs are around the country with the injuries we had this fall and obviously being new,” Bohannon said Tuesday.
“From a pitching standpoint, I think you could see some musical chairs for the first four to six weeks of us trying to get the right guys in the right roles.”
Choosing winners will be easy.
“We got a simple rule around here,” Bohannon said, “if you get them out, you get to pitch more.”
Bohannon suspended sophomore right-hander Deacon Medders, who had 33 strikeouts in 35 innings last season, for the series against Valparaiso.
Righty Brock Love and southpaw Garret Rukes, each recovering from Tommy John surgery, are active for the series, but Bohannon acknowledged neither is at 100 percent effectiveness.
Alabama’s Sunday starter is still unannounced, too, and the decision won’t be made until after seeing the toll Friday and Saturday’s games take on the staff.
“I think depth is a challenge for every college team the first weekend,” Bohannon said. “Your starters aren’t in condition to pitch really deep into the game. I would expect darn near everybody on our staff to get a chance to pitch the first four or five games, which is good for us.”
Bohannon takes solace in the staff’s sole constant, right-hander Jake Walters, who informed Major League teams in June prior to the third day of the draft that he would return for his senior season.
Alabama’s Friday night starter last season, Walters produced a 3.98 earned-run average in 72 ⅓ innings. Opponents hit just .266 against him and mustered only 17 extra-base hits.
“Oh my gosh, I cannot imagine not having Jake right now,” Bohannon said last week. “There’s no substitute for experience. And he’s good. He’s older, he prepares well, he competes well. He’s a great example for all our younger pitchers of how to go about your work and how to compete.”
One of which gets the opening night call.
Bohannon will turn to sophomore righty Sam Finnerty — he of just two starts as a freshman — on Friday afternoon for the season-opening start, a move the coach said to “not look into” more than just a scheduling procedure.
“Jake could easily go on Friday and Sam could go on Saturday, they’re very interchangeable,” Bohannon said. “They’re very similar in that both of those guys throw a ton of strikes, they have outstanding body language, they throw multiple pitches for a strike, they’re very competitive, very diligent in the way they approach practice and their work.”
A two-way player who will likely be forced to focus more on pitching given the team’s plight, Finnerty threw 45 innings last season to a 4.60 earned-run average, striking out 35 while walking 22.
Eliminating walks is paramount, and not just for Finnerty. Tempering Bohannon’s pitching concerns is his infield, one that could start two juniors — including preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection Cobie Vance at third base — and two seniors.
Inserting junior college transfer Jett Manning at shortstop moved senior Chandler Avant to second base, too. Bohannon feels strongly his team will defend at a high level, a welcome sight after the Tide fielded just .971 last season.
“It’s huge,” Finnerty said of the veteran infield. “I’ve played with them for two years now and I’m really comfortable with all the guys out there and I think it’s going to be a good year.”
Whether his unheralded group of pitchers induce contact remains, fittingly, a mystery.