Thursday, October 28, 2004
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama baseball team wrapped up its fall baseball season last weekend with wins over the top three junior college programs in the country to claim the championship of the 2004 Alabama Fall Classic.
Overall, Alabama head coach Jim Wells was pleased with the way his team played in the weekend series and was especially glad to get three wins against three good teams.
"It was a good weekend," Wells said. "We got to play some good competition, we got to face some good pitchers. The main thing is everybody played and we were able to evaluate them against somebody else besides us. There were a lot of good things and some not so good things. We got everybody in the game, sometimes multiple times at different positions. That was the reason for the tournament. We played well enough to win the games, which was nice also.
"It was important to win. We wanted to win. I told the older guys that it was important to win. I know this was just a scrimmage, but we played the games to win. We got everybody in and we won three games, so in that regard that was good for all of us, because when you are 29-26 (2004 record) you need to win."
The Crimson Tide showed improvement in all three phases of its game after last year's disappointing season.
On offense, Alabama batted .301 (28-for-93) and averaged five runs per game. The Crimson Tide lacked power with only one home run (junior 3B Evan Bush), but swatted nine doubles in the three games.
The biggest surprise on offense was the emergence of sophomore centerfielder Emeel Salem (Mountain Brook). In three games, Salem batted .636 (7-for-11) with three doubles, two runs scored, two RBI and one triple. He had a 1.091 slugging percentage and a .692 on-base mark.
For the fall, which included nine other intrasquad games, Salem was the leading hitter with .488 (20-for-41) batting average, with seven runs scored, five doubles and five RBI.
"Emeel Salem is the most improved player we have. He has gone from a fast guy to a fast guy that can bunt, hit and steal bases. We are really pleased with his progress. He is a big-time player coming out of this fall."
The pitching staff was the biggest question mark entering the final weekend of the fall workouts. Wells was trying to replace five pitchers off last year's team, including first-round draft pick Taylor Tankersley, that accounted for 211 of the 484 innings pitched last season. Those five pitchers also posted a 9-12 record in 75 appearances on the mound and accounted for all nine saves last season.
The pitching was solid all weekend at the Alabama Fall Classic. In fact, the Crimson Tide used 13 different pitchers and did not allow an earned run. The pitching staff allowed only 12 hits in 27 innings on the mound and recorded 29 strikeouts.
Sophomore left hander Wade LeBlanc (Lake Charles, La.), who was the 2004 National Freshman of the Year, picked up where he left off last season. LeBlanc retired all 12 batters he faced against San Jacinto and recorded seven strikeouts in the win.
"LeBlanc really stood out, but that is not much of a surprise. He pitched better in that game than he has all fall. First couple of days, we did not give up a run and that was nice to see. We have some guys that have a lot of work to do in that area, but the main thing is they got out there and maybe that will help the spring as it won't be their first time against outside competition.
Senior left-hander Brent Carter (Americus, Ga.) earned the win over Seminole State on Oct. 22 before leaving the game after 2 2/3 innings with a minor injury. Junior right-hander Trey Shields (Panama City, Fla.) and freshmen right handers David Robertson (Tuscaloosa) and Josh Copeland (Palmetto, Ga,) also pitched in the opener.
Junior right-hander T.J. Large (Seminole, Fla.), who suffered a season-ending injury last Feb. 29, made his return to the mound with three innings of work in the win over Chipola. He allowed five hits and two unearned runs, with four strikeouts.
"We weren't trying to spot the ball this weekend. We were just trying to give them confidence, throwing the ball down the middle. We mainly threw a lot of fastballs. There were some guys that have gotten better in the last two months. A guy like (sophomore RHP David) Laminack (Gardendale), who came in and threw strikes. (Junior RHP Jordan) Davis (Frisco, Texas) threw a lot of strikes. There were quite a few guys that made more quality pitches. So, I was pleased."
Wells was also pleased with the progress of three newcomers, who will likely be in the opening day lineup when the team opens the season at Hawai'i on Feb. 10, 2005.
"The guys coming out of the fall that are new that seem to make an impact right now are Copeland, (Cale) Iorg and (Kody) Valverde, a transfer from UNO. Those three guys, with what we have coming back, seem to really stand out as of Oct. 24. Others will improve, but right now those are the three."
Copeland was used as the closer in wins over Seminole State and San Jacinto. He pitched two scoreless innings with two strikeouts and racked up a pair of saves. At the plate, he was 1-for-4 in three games. Copeland, a true freshman, could be the opening day designated hitter and closer for the Tide this spring.
Another freshman, Iorg (Knoxville, Tenn.), played solid at short last weekend. He did not have an error in 11 chances and collected two hits and scored three runs for the Crimson Tide.
Valverde (Baton Rouge, La.), a junior transfer from the University of New Orleans, was solid behind the plate this fall. He had only one hit (6 at-bats) in the Alabama Fall Classic, but he did add two sacrifice flies and a pair of RBI in the wins over Seminole State and Chipola. Overall, Valverde hit .286 (10-for-35) this fall, with one home run and seven RBI.
Overall, Wells saw improvement in his team from a year ago, mainly from improved hitting and a stronger up-the-middle defense. Alabama made only two errors in the three games last weekend.
"We are better now than when the fall began. The key difference to me is that we are better up the middle. (Senior Allen) Rice is better and healthy this year. Iorg is a real good shortstop and then we have our Jim Edmonds (Salem) in center field, who can go get the ball. We have some catchers now. I really like Valverde. We have some others that have a chance to be good too. But when you can be strong up the middle, and that is what I like about this club, we have a chance to be good. I think the thing is going to be pitching, because we lost a lot of guys who threw a lot of innings last year."