Baseball opens practice confident in power, pitching depth


CW / Hannah Saad

Carey Reeder | @realCareyReeder, Staff Reporter

Puffy, white clouds scatter across the amber-tinted Tuscaloosa sky as the sun dips behind Coleman Coliseum and the Alabama baseball team finishes up its first official practice of the spring. The lights come alive around Sewell-Thomas Stadium as dusk strikes and No. 19 in crimson steps into the batter’s box.

Alabama catcher Sam Praytor, who played in just six games last season before missing the rest of the season with an elbow injury, lined a single to left-center field in his final at-bat of the opening scrimmage on Friday evening. The redshirt sophomore had only 18 at-bats last season before his injury, but those featured two home runs. 

After a productive freshman season in which he led the Crimson Tide in walks and on-base percentage, Praytor said he’s eager to return.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Praytor said. “[I’m excited] about everything, just getting back in the box, back behind the plate and playing in SEC stadiums again.”

Alabama stretched three scrimmages across its opening weekend, and the returning power in the lineup was on display during the first two days. The team’s leading home run hitter from last season, junior outfielder Tyler Gentry, launched a rocket over the left field playground in the second scrimmage on Saturday for the only home run of the first two days.

Alabama returns just below 63% of its plate production against SEC opponents from last season, but coach Brad Bohannon isn’t concerned about his returning offense.

“We might hit 60 or 70 home runs,” Bohannon said. “There’s guys showing it in practice and scrimmages that haven’t done it in games.”

Bohannon mentioned Praytor, Gentry and the second-leading home run hitter from last year, sophomore outfielder T.J. Reeves, by name. With three players in the middle of the lineup with that type of power, any pitcher will have to bring his best stuff.

“We’re improving as a team,” Reeves said. “All of our younger guys have improved so much from the fall. This year should be a lot of fun.”

Reeves and Praytor came to Alabama as part of the 2018 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 10 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball News (CBN). Bohannon backed that up by bringing in the No. 7-ranked recruiting class this season, also according to CBN. It features 15 players who have contributed to a team spirit Bohannon called “really good.”

Five of those 15 freshmen were selected in the 2019 MLB Draft but opted to attend school: outfielders Owen Diodati and Jackson Tate, infielder Myles Austin and pitchers Antoine Jean and Connor Prielipp.

The pitching staff is perhaps the most glaring unfinished product for the Crimson Tide with two and a half weeks remaining until opening day on Feb. 14 against Northeastern. While there are plenty of arms, the staff lacks experience. Of the 18 pitchers on the club, redshirt senior Kyle Cameron is the only one with an SEC win.

Many pitchers are in position to get looks early in the season, and some have begun to separate themselves already. Prielipp has been impressive in the fall and very well might be a weekend starter, if not the opening day starter. Other freshman arms such as Jean, Garret Rukes and Landon Green will get a chance on the bump. Bohannon also mentioned sophomores Dylan Smith, Connor Shamblin and Tyler Ras as players who will get looks early in the season while the team tries to piece together the best rotation.

“We don’t have a lot of experience on the mound, but we have arm talent. There’s a lot of that there,” Bohannon said. “It’s important for me and [assistant coach Jason Jackson] to get the guys in the right roles, maybe a little quicker than last year.”

While non-conference play counts just as much as conference competition, all eyes will be on Alabama during its transition to SEC play on March 13 when it hosts Missouri. 

The team’s record has improved in both seasons under Bohannon – from 19-34-1 to 27-29 to 30-26 – but the Crimson Tide still has just 15 SEC wins over the last two seasons compared to 42 non-conference wins.

Still, there hasn’t been this much buzz around Alabama baseball in several years, and both the players and coaches believe this is the start of an ascension for the program.

“With the talent we have, myself and everyone else are confident that we’re going to make some noise this year,” Ras said. “This year we hopefully bring Alabama baseball back to what it was.”