TUSCALOOSA — Brad Bohannon declined to place expectations on his first team. Rendering any sort of predictions or objectives — whether a target record, benchmarks to meet or just statistical goals — required some knowledge of what he possessed.
The Crimson Tide’s 42-year-old skipper is unafraid to reveal how little he knew. A bundle of pitchers recovering from various offseason ailments hardly threw live innings in the fall. Eight position players returned from the worst Alabama baseball team in modern history, some ostensibly disgruntled for playing under a third coach in three seasons.
“I knew we had some good pieces,” Bohannon said Wednesday. “I think if you would have told me three weeks ago that we’d start out 9-0 or 3-6, I could have believed anything. I really didn’t know. I really didn’t create any expectations for this group in the short term.”
Alabama finished an undefeated February, demolishing Alabama State 11-1 for its ninth win in as many attempts. It is the program’s first nine-game winning streak since 2003 and its best start since beginning the 2012 season 10-0
Bohannon’s nine straight wins are the most to begin an Alabama career since Wallace Wade, the national champion football coach, won his first nine games as baseball coach in 1929. Kid Peeples won his first 10 games as baseball coach in 1897.
“I’m really pleased with the start,” Bohannon said. “We keep saying that we’re not giving any of these wins back. But I think we can play better. There are plenty of areas in the game that we can improve — and must improve — if we want to be playing in May and June.”
The Crimson Tide’s nine wins range from a walk-off win against Valparaiso — a game it trailed after the seventh inning — to a 14-run romp on opening night one afternoon earlier to a four-hit shutout of Middle Tennessee State.
It’s won on the road, too, bludgeoning Samford 13-3 on Tuesday.
One day later against Alabama State, the Crimson Tide collected 14 hits, its fifth straight game with 10 or more hits. Seven of Alabama’s nine wins yielded 10 or more hits. The two that did not were each eight-hit efforts.
Offensive success was not unforeseen — the team returned 40 of its 46 home runs from last season and nearly every position player — though the balance throughout the lineup could be.
Keith Holcombe, the Alabama football linebacker who spends his springs playing baseball, leads the team with a .625 batting average in his first 24 at-bats. Bohannon gave him a day off Wednesday. Jett Manning, the team’s everyday shortstop and a .300 hitter, received one, too.
Still, the offense was potent, smacking five doubles. Chandler Avant had one, upping his average to .459 in 37 at-bats — second only to Holcombe. Now cleared from a three-game suspension that began his season, slugger Chandler Taylor clubbed two home runs Tuesday against Samford.
“We have 12 guys that could start,” said Hunter Alexander, hitting .400 in the first nine games. “We could get down 4-0, 6-0 and I never get worried about whether we’re going to lose this game. It really doesn’t matter. I just think we’re really confident in the fact that we can win any game and it doesn’t matter what the score is.”
A pitching staff with little preseason fanfare due to injuries and the coaching transition has overperformed.
In 81 innings, Alabama has allowed just 26 earned runs — a 3.12 ERA — and walked only 20 batters. The pitching staff has not allowed an unearned run, a byproduct of pitching coach Jason Jackson’s “throw low strikes” philosophy and a veteran defense.
Comprised of two juniors on the left side and two seniors on the right, Alabama’s veteran infield invites the pitching staff it plays behind to invade the strike zone. The team has committed just seven errors all season, sometimes erasing the mistakes their pitchers make.
“It’s pretty easy to throw when you know your offense is behind you, but even more when your defense and the way they’re playing behind you,” said righty Mason Duke. “It really calms you down knowing that you can throw strikes and give up a hit here and there and you got them behind you.”
Duke threw five innings of one-hit, scoreless baseball on Wednesday, striking out seven. He’s one of seven Tide pitchers who’ve yet to allow a run in 32 innings.
Brock Love and Garret Rukes, affectionately dubbed the team’s Tommy John duo, have combined for eight scoreless innings in their two midweek appearances. Friday night starter Sam Finnerty and Jake Walters — the pitching staff’s unquestioned senior leader who throws on Saturdays — have struck out 15 in 22⅔ innings while issuing only five walks.
“I think J.J. is outstanding,” Bohannon said of his pitching coach. “Among a lot of things, I think he does a great job of coaching each pitcher individually. I think he does a really good job of building on their strengths and improving their weaknesses. He communicates well, he’s smart, all that stuff.”
Forty-seven games remain in what sometimes feels like an interminable season. Slumps are inevitable and losses will come.
Balancing, maybe even tempering, excitement about the start is paramount. Bohannon said before the season this team, one that lost all 27 games in which it trailed after seven or eight innings last year, had to reacquire the feeling of victory.
February has accomplished that goal, albeit against lesser competition than it faces in April and May.
“It’s really easy because I’ve been in the league 14 years and I know the ten weekends we have coming up,” said Bohannon, whose team departs for a three-game set Thursday against Oklahoma. “That doesn’t even include two really good weekend opponents that we have left before league play. It’s pretty easy to stay grounded knowing what’s ahead of us.”