Perhaps the strength of the Alabama baseball team for the second straight year, the Tide pitching staff should again, be outstanding. And it is certainly no surprise that sophomore left-hander Wade LeBlanc is the ace of the staff for the second year in-a-row.
“A year like that does not happen often,” Wells said of LeBlanc’s record-setting rookie season. “We have certainly never had a freshman that did what he did to pitch on the weekends, much less, progress to where he pitched the Friday night game and pitched very well for the most part.
“My feeling is, if you coach a team for 30 years like we have, then you get one guy like that. LeBlanc is the guy. We probably won’t ever see another guy like that because of the odds. He is an exceptional guy, with good control, command of several pitches and a great competitor. And, through the season he did not shy away from any situation.
“When we sit down and say what player is going to do what, isn’t it nice to say we have a Friday night starter. It’s better to build your staff when you know who the No. 1 guy is than when you have eight No. 5 (starters) and you hope one of them steps up.”
Tankersley, a first-round draft selection by the Florida Marlins, was the most versatile. He appeared in 27 games as a starter and a reliever and compiled a 2-5 record and SEC-leading 2.00 ERA, with four saves.
Heading into the season, Wells has identified eight pitchers who will see significant time early in the year. In addition to LeBlanc, Wells projects that sophomore Brandon Belcher is the leading candidate to be the No. 2 starter in the rotation. Belcher missed the entire fall while recovering from off-season surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow. He began throwing in live, game situations in mid January.
The No. 3 starter and midweek starter will come from the group of senior Brent Carter, junior T.J. Large and sophomore Trey Shields. Carter has the most experience on the staff and has compiled 19 career wins at Bama. After a sub-par 2004 season, Carter is looking to regain the form that earned him All-America honors as a sophomore in 2003.
“We really need guys like Shields and Large to step up. Those are two key guys for us. We also need Carter to pitch more like his sophomore year. If that happens then we have a chance to have a good staff.”
With Carter, LeBlanc and Belcher returning, Alabama has 30 career wins to build around this season.
Junior Matt Downs and a pair of freshmen Josh Copeland and David Robertson will open the season in the pen. Downs showed improvement as the fall concluded and brings SEC experience to the staff. Robertson was impressive this fall and threw strikes. Copeland is not your typical freshman. The two-way star and former Coweta County Player of the Year is the projected closer this season. He would be the first rookie to close for UA since Lance Cormier did it in 1999.
“So when I circle the guys coming out of the fall, I see Carter, Copeland, Large, LeBlanc, Robertson -- I thought did well -- Shields and Matt Downs showed some signs of life,” Wells said. “We used Robertson and Copeland in relief, so we have two freshmen in the pen right now. There are still some question marks, but I feel like there are some good arms that make up our staff. Certainly, LeBlanc is No. 1. But we need to be able to feel good about a No. 2 and No. 3 and a midweek starter and relievers.”
The other six pitchers on the staff will be looking for time in the bullpen. Those candidates include Kenneth Brown, Jordan Davis, Doug Denson, Austin Hyatt, David Laminack and Morrow Thomley.
Junior Patrick Kelly and sophomore Ian Moore enrolled at Alabama in January and will also compete for time on the mound this season.
Junior Allen Ponder will redshirt the 2005 season while he rehabs from off-season shoulder surgery.
An Achilles heel in 2004, the catching position may be the most improved spot on the Alabama team this season.
“There are three areas that we have improved, but I would agree that the catcher position is the most improved,” Wells said. “The addition of Valverde has made us better behind the plate and I also think we have some quality depth. We have four catchers, but Valverde would start if we played today. The rest is up in the air.”
The Crimson Tide brought in junior Kody Valverde to shore up the backstop position. Valverde, a First-Team All Sun Belt Conference pick last year, was a two-year starter at the University of New Orleans. He made an immediate impact with the Crimson Tide this fall and won the job as fall camp concluded.
“But right now, Valverde is the guy. He is a Dax Norris-type player. I think he is the perfect college-type player. Valverde has always come to our camps here at Alabama. Last year, when we played UNO, I was very impressed. I thought he did a great job. He blocked everything and he was a very tough at-bat, like he is here. He is one of our toughest outs. He has the mentality and the skills to make our team better overnight.”
“Kirkland is an outstanding catch-and-throw guy,” Wells added. “Charlie Lyons will help us offensively. It’s like this, if someone like Lyons, or anybody for that matter, goes and does the job behind the plate and swings the bat well, they will get a chance to play.”
Kirkland was drafted in the 49th round of the 2004 MLB draft by the Florida Marlins.
Lyons returns for his third season and is healthy for the first time since his freshman year. Lyons played in only 20 games last season while recovering from a broken hamate bone in his left hand. The injury forced him to miss 35 games. As a result, Lyons had only six hits in 55 at-bats last year, with two home runs and 15 RBI.
Ferazza played in 23 games as a sophomore and made eight starts behind plate. He showed improved offensive skills late in the season and hit .333 (13-for-39) with one home run and nine RBI.
One of the strengths of the Alabama team this season will be its up the middle defense, something Wells said they did not have last year. The middle defense is not only experienced and talented, but also has the depth it did not have a year ago.
“I really think we will be stronger up-the-middle defensively, with Valverde, Rice, Iorg and Salem,” Wells said. “The guys that are battling for those positions could come in the game and we would not miss a beat.
“I know the last year (2002) that we had a fairly good team, we had a lot of young and inexperienced players everywhere else except up the middle and we had a pretty good squad. We had a good pitching staff and a good strong up the middle defense.”
Senior second baseman Allen Rice and freshman shortstop Cale Iorg will open the season as Alabama’s middle infield and double-play combination.
Iorg may be the most talented freshman infielder to play for coach Wells. The slick-fielding shortstop was a First-Team High School All-American by Baseball America and also participated in the AFLAC High School All-American game following his junior season at Karns High School.
In addition to his ability on the diamond, Iorg has strong baseball roots and Major League Baseball bloodlines. His father, Garth, and uncle Dane, both played for former Alabama Director of Athletics Glen Tuckett at BYU and then enjoyed fine careers in the big leagues. His two older brothers, Issac and Eli, are also standout players. Issac is in the Atlanta Braves organization, while Eli is a junior at the University of Tennessee.
Scelfo started 40 games at second base (22) and shortstop (18) before a late-season knee injury forced him to miss the final 10 games. He is also the most versatile player on the Tide roster as the senior can play all four infield positions, all three outfield positions and DH.
Paiml gained experience as a true freshman and started 31 games at shortstop. He can also play second base, shortstop and third base for the Tide.
The corner infield spots will be manned by Alabama’s two leading power threats last season. Senior Zac Welch will return for his fourth and final season at first base, while junior Evan Bush will start at third base for the second year in a row.
Welch started 51 games last year, all at first base. In his career, he has logged 130 career starts at first base. He was the Crimson Tide’s top run producer last year, with 46 RBI.
“We have all of our infielders back when you look at the guys that played for us last year,” Wells added. “We have the addition of Cale Iorg at shortstop, who certainly can play that position. So we do have some guys back and I think they have all improved.
“Bush is certainly better at third base. Allen Rice is healthy now and has done very well at second base. Zac Welch continues to improve at first base and I thought he did real well last year. Paiml can play any of the infield positions, meaning second, short or third. Rocky Scelfo can play all infield positions and can play outfield.”
Redshirt freshman Matt Bentley and true freshman John Parker Wilson are the backups at first and third base, respectively.
“So we have some quality players and some quality depth. John Parker Wilson is a guy that I think can help us. Matt Bentley has improved. If a guy can swing the bat, then they are going to get a shot and for Wilson, like all of the rest, that will be the determining factor. I think the infield is better, and it should be because every guy played last year and played a lot.”
Junior Spencer Pennington will also be in the mix at first base and DH.
True freshmen Wes Henderson, Kyle Moore and Ben Soignier are expected to redshirt this season.
On paper it does not appear that Alabama has the numbers in the outfield this season, but nothing could be farther from the truth. While the UA roster only lists four outfielders, there are six players that can and will play in the outfield this season for coach Wells.
“Salem is probably our most improved player after what he did in the fall,” Wells said. “His ability to swing the bat, bunt, a terrific outfielder with arm strength and now a real threat on the bases rather than being a guy that was just really fast. I really like him in centerfield. He is a Jim Edmonds-type player for us.”
Sophomore Michael McCallister is back for his second season and will likely be the opening day right fielder. McCallister has improved since his arrival on campus and the Tide coaches are looking for him to supply the power they did not have in the outfield last year.
Scott is a fifth-year player, who led the Crimson Tide with a .316 batting average in SEC play last year. He has 43 career starts at Alabama, but 30 came last year as a junior. Scott also had his best season last year, hitting .316 with eight home runs and 36 RBI.
“Scott is a guy that two years ago was pretty much on his way out,” Wells said. “He had been injured and never really had much success and we talked about possibly just finishing up his degree. But he stuck with it and last year, he was our leading hitter in SEC play and a middle of the lineup hitter. So, yes, Gabe improved from last year and he is a nice story after all he has been through.”
In addition to playing all four infield positions, Scelfo can also play the outfield and don’t be surprised to see his name in the lineup there this season because of his experience, ability to hit and versatility.
“We want to win the games, so whoever is playing well at the time will be the ones who play,” Wells said. “We have a lot of options. There have been some years where we did not have options. It all comes down to who is playing better.”