Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon had no interest in starting a true freshman on the mound for the Crimson Tide’s opening day matchup against Northeastern on Friday. However, one freshman’s impressive fall and spring have turned Bohannon against his wishes.
Enter Connor Prielipp, who may not have pitched in front of more than 250 people at a single game throughout high school but is now the Crimson Tide’s No. 1 pitcher heading into opening weekend.
“He’s really separated himself from a ‘stuff’ perspective throughout his short time here,” Bohannon said. “He’s a really mature and confident player – he’s going to do a great job.”
The Tomah, Wisconsin, native, whose town is home to just under 10,000 people, has impressed during scrimmages. He has shown the ability to throw multiple off-speed pitches: a curveball and slider, paired with an accurate lower 90s fastball.
The left-hander was the 2019 Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Wisconsin and was tabbed as the top left-handed pitcher and No. 2 overall player in the state. Prielipp was selected in the 37th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox.
After Prielipp, the pitching scene becomes more dubious for the Crimson Tide between the No. 2 and No. 9 slots in the rotation. For Saturday, Bohannon elected to go with sophomore Connor Shamblin in the second game of the series. Shamblin appeared in 14 games with four starts last season and compiled a 2-1 record. The right-hander struck out 26 and held batters to a .227 average while facing them.
Due to the logjam in the rotation order, Bohannon is not setting anything in stone when it comes to roles.
“I was really torn on what to do with the weekend rotation,” Bohannon said. “The real strength of this pitching staff is the length of it.”
Last year Shamblin and Tyler Ras became the first freshman duo to start on opening weekend in seven years, but freshma Antoine Jean’s start on Sunday will make it two years in a row. Jean was rated as the No. 8 MLB Draft prospect from Canada by Baseball America and was selected in the 17th round of the draft by the Minnesota Twins in 2019. The left-hander also participated in the 2019 18U World Cup for Team Canada along with his teammate, freshman outfielder Owen Diodati.
Although this rotation is young and inexperienced, pitching against Alabama’s experienced hitters all preseason helped them acclimate to the caliber of SEC lineups.
“They’re all mature beyond their years. They don’t get flustered easily,” senior utility man Brett Auerbach said. “That’s huge to have when the lights are on and 5,000 people are screaming – you just have to lock in and do your job.”
Starting the younger pitchers gives Bohannon the advantage of saving the more experienced options for later in games when it may mean more in terms of score. The pitchers with more experience, such as sophomore right-handers Ras, Dylan Smith and Jacob McNairy, are all expected to pitch in the first few series of the season, perhaps in a mid-week starting role.
With 10 games in the first 13 days of the season, Alabama will have to extend its rotation down and get veteran arms like juniors Garret Rukes and Brock Guffey and senior Casey Cobb into games in relief.
With no permanent roles set, every Crimson Tide arm will be on call and have a critical bullpen role to assist in the grueling first month of the season.
“We have so many guys who haven’t done it in league play,” Bohannon said. “I’m pretty open-minded to anybody starting or pitching in relief on the back end – we’ll figure that out more as we go.”