Alabama Pitching Shows Potential In Challenge At Florida

Image credit: Alabama lefthander Grayson Hitt (Photo courtesy of Alabama Baseball)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida came into this weekend ranked in the top 10 nationally in a slew of offensive categories. First in slugging (.651). Second in home runs (45). Fourth in scoring (11.0 runs per game). Fourth in batting (.348). The Gators are inarguably one of the best offenses in the country.

Slowing down that lineup on the road was the challenge on the first weekend of SEC play for Alabama. The Crimson Tide have a strong, experienced pitching staff and ranked No. 22 nationally in team ERA (3.43), but the Gators represented a big test.

Florida won the series, winning Thursday’s opener, 3-0, behind a one-hitter from Brandon Sproat. It walked off with an 8-7 victory in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader to clinch the series before Alabama won the nightcap, 6-3.

The Crimson Tide (17-4) go home with a tough series loss, but the knowledge that their pitching staff met the challenge head on. They held the Gators (18-4) to 14 runs in the series, just over Florida’s per game average. The Tide struck out 27 batters, walked seven and gave up 22 hits in 25.1 innings in Gainesville.

Alabama’s gameplan on the mound was to attack the Florida hitters.

“I just told the kids you’ve got to go right at them, you can’t give them anything for free,” coach Brad Bohannon said. “You can’t expect to shut down a team like that, you’ve just got to slow them down and try to match them and win it late. That’s kind of what happened in the second game (Friday).”

The Crimson Tide used just seven pitchers on a short week (the series began on a Thursday) that became shorter when forecasted rain on Saturday forced the series to finish with a Friday doubleheader. Alabama on Thursday started righthander Hagan Banks, who previously had only pitched in relief this season, as it reorganizes its rotation and he delivered in a big spot. He held the Gators scoreless in 3.1 innings, striking out two, walking none and allowing just one hit.

On Friday, starters Ben Hess (6.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 0 BB, 8 K) and Grayson Hitt (5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 5 K) were solid and the bullpen was strong all weekend. Redshirt freshman righthander Kade Woods shined in Friday’s win, as he struck out all seven batters he faced to close out the win and earn his first career save.

“I thought all three of our starters gave us a chance to win,” Bohannon said. “I thought we pitched well out of the bullpen.”

Pitching is a strength this season for the Tide, with Hess and Hitt expected to be able to match up with the SEC’s best on the mound. While Hess finished the day with a tough stat line, he held his own against Florida lefthander Jac Caglianone, a matchup between two of the better pitching prospects in the 2024 draft class.

In the nightcap, Hitt faced an equally difficult matchup on the mound against righthander Hurston Waldrep, a projected first-round pick this July. Hitt came out on top, improving to 3-1, 4.37 on the season.

While he’s struggled with control this season—he’s walked 16 batters in 22.2 innings—he did a better job Friday of pitching ahead in the count. He was able to pitch into the sixth inning for the first time this season.

HItt said his improvement with strike throwing was a result of an improved mindset.

“I was just more calm, I was taking deep breaths,” he said. “The past couple weeks I was getting ahead of myself. Today, I just took some deep breaths really focused on what I was trying to do: executing pitches.”

Hitt is one of the best lefthanders in the draft class thanks to his lean, 6-foot-3, 210-pound build and a good fastball-slider combination. He still needs to refine his control, but if he can build on his success at Florida, the Alabama rotation starts to look dangerous.

Hitt said the key for him moving forward is to continue to focus on throwing first-pitch strikes and getting ahead of batters after three pitches.

“I could always get ahead more,” he said. “I fall behind some times and that’s my kryptonite. But I feel like when I get ahead, I can do some damage.”

Much like Hitt, when Alabama can get ahead, it can do damage. Pitching coach Jason Jackson has some big arms to choose from and they can give opponents varied looks. Righthander Riley Quick took the loss in the first game Friday, but the 6-foot-6 freshman has already become one of the team’s most trusted relievers. Banks hasn’t given up an earned run in 9.2 innings across five appearances this season and has made four straight scoreless appearances. Lefthander Hunter Furtado took the loss Thursday, but largely stymied the Gators, giving up just two hits in 4.2 innings. Righthander Zane Probst on Friday saw his scoreless streak to start the year end after six appearances, but Woods was able to pick him up with a stellar outing.

Giving a lead to that set of relievers will work out for Alabama more often than not this spring. It’s all part of why the Crimson Tide will make for a tough weekend throughout SEC play, as they showed this weekend.

There’s still room for improvement—Alabama did lose the series, after all—but the Crimson Tide can feel good about going toe-to-toe with the No. 2 team in the country on the road.

“You’re not going to see anything moving forward that you didn’t this weekend,” Bohannon said. “You saw 100 mph, you saw one of the best secondary pitches in the country, you saw arguably the best lineup in the country.

“Not that it’s going to be easy, but we aren’t going to see anything we haven’t seen at this point.”

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