Alabama (20-8; 6-3) at Texas A&M (18-12; 4-5)
First of all, I would like to apologize for not recapping last weekend's series loss at Georgia. I will therefore make it up to you by summarizing the series with a few GIFs.
You're welcome. Moving on!
This weekend will feature a pair of baseball teams that come into the series heading in opposite directions. The visiting Alabama Crimson Tide come to Olsen Field on a 5 game winning streak, while the Fightin' Texas Aggies have dropped 4 of their previous 5 contests. A&M continued to be unable to win a series on the road, this time dropping a series against one of the SEC's bottom teams in Georgia last weekend. Alabama, on the other hand, is fresh off a sweep of a solid Ole Miss team in Tuscaloosa last weekend in which they won all 3 games by a combined 4 runs.
The Tide are ranked in most of the collegiate baseball polls - anywhere from 15th to 21st - and Alabama took 2 games from the Aggies last season in Tuscaloosa. This is yet another great opportunity for A&M to make up for their struggles so far this season, as winning a series against a Top-20 opponent can do wonders in balancing out series losses to the likes of Georgia and Fresno State. However, that is certainly going to be a tall task against a very, very good Alabama pitching staff. It may be worth noting, however, that Bama has dropped their only other 2 road series so far this season - against Louisiana-Lafayette early in the season and 2 weeks ago against Arkansas. Let's see how the series stacks up.
Friday (6:35pm CT)
RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-1, 1.63, 1.16, 31 K, 19 BB)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-3, 3.12, 1.10, 56 K, 15 BB)
Alabama's ace Spencer Turnbull got hit hard last Friday by Ole Miss, but managed to persevere and earn the win. The junior allowed 6 earned runs on 10 hits at home against the Rebels, striking out 4 and walking one, but was able to make it through 6.2 innings. The Tide held a 7-6 lead when Turnbull was pulled, and they would manage to hold on for a victory by that score. Ole Miss scored 2 runs in each of the first, third and fourth innings, and those 6 earned runs were a serious aberration for Turnbull, who had given up just 1 earned run coming into that game. He is allowing opponents to hit for an average of just .195, so this will certainly be a test for the A&M hitters.
Yet again, Daniel Mengden had early-game struggles on Friday night against Georgia. For one reason or another, Mengden has really had issues with giving up runs in the first two innings for most of this season. For the third consecutive week, in fact, A&M's opponent scored 2 runs in the first inning against Mengden. This is something that absolutely must be fixed; the Aggies do not have the offense to be able to play out of early-game deficits, especially with their "ace" on the mound.
Saturday (2:05pm CT)
LHP Justin Kamplain (2-2, 3.35, 0.99, 44 K, 13 BB)
RHP Grayson Long (3-1, 1.84, 1.16, 28 K, 12 BB)
Kamplain - a junior from Jasper, AL - leads the Alabama pitching staff with 44 strikeouts so far in 2014, although he also leads the staff in runs allowed as well. Kamplain worked 6.2 innings against the Rebels last weekend, allowing 4 runs (3 earned) on 7 hits and 3 walks while striking out 11 (!!) Ole Miss hitters. For the second time in as many games, the Tide went on to win the game by a single run, although this time it was not until after Kamplain had already left the game. Opponents are hitting just .189 against Kamplain - the lowest among Bama's weekend starters -
For the first time this season, Grayson Long was virtually unable to miss his opponents' bats and was hit hard by the Georgia Bulldogs. Long gave up 8 hits in just 4.1 innings of work in Athens, and the Bulldogs would tally 4 earned runs against the Aggie sophomore. Although he did not walk a batter - which is certainly a plus for Grayson - he only struck out 2 and a number of outs he got were on hard hit balls. Those 4 earned runs nearly doubled Long's earned run total on the season, so he will be looking to get back on track against Alabama.
Sunday (1:05pm CT)
LHP Jon Keller (5-1, 1.50, 0.83, 29 K, 6 BB)
LHP Tyler Stubblefield (3-1, 2.33, 1.29, 43 K, 11 BB)
Keller is coming off a masterful performance last Sunday against a previously Top-15 Ole Miss team. The junior from Maylene, AL tossed a 1-run complete game against the Rebels, scattering 7 hits and 3 walks to go along with 8 strikeouts and leading the Tide to a 3-1 series sweep. Keller actually has the lowest ERA among the Alabama weekend starters, and he has also walked the fewest batters (6) while throwing the most innings (42.0). It is certainly a luxury for Alabama to be able to use a guy like Keller in the Sunday starter role, and this will likely prove to be a much more difficult Sunday game than A&M has faced in recent weeks.
Similar to Long on Saturday, Stubblefield was hit hard by the Bulldogs last Sunday. The true freshman gave up 7 hits in only 3.1 innings of work, allowing 3 runs - 2 earned - with 3 strikeouts and a walk. After going 6 innings and allowing just 5 hits in his last start against Florida, this was certainly a disappointing performance from Stubblefield. Fortunately, the A&M bats were able to have some success against Georgia's Sunday starter and bullpen and keep Tyler from being saddled with the loss.
What to Watch
The Alabama offense has not exactly lit up the scoreboard so far this season, and only 2 regular Tide starters feature a batting average over .300, but 7 hitters who have started at least 10 games are hitting over .280 on the season. Senior 1B Austen Smith has lead all Alabama hitters in a number of statistical categories, including average (.352), slugging percentage (.527), on-base percentage (.429), RBI (24), and total bases (48). Also keep an eye on sophomore 2B Kyle Overstreet (.320/.440/.387) and junior RF Ben Moore (.294/.431/.355) as major threats at the plate for the Tide. Let's check in on how these 2 teams compare in terms of hitting.
Suffice to say that the strength of this Alabama team lies in their pitching staff. The Tide feature a total of 3 pitchers - out of a staff of 15 - who sport on ERA over 4.00. In fact, 10 of those 15 pitchers actually come into this series with an ERA under 2.00. Outside of their already strong starting rotation, the Alabama bullpen is a force to be reckoned with. Senior RHP Tucker Hawley (2-1, 0.92) has tossed 19.2 innings in 7 appearances - including 2 starts - and allowed just 2 earned runs while striking out 17, walking 4, and holding opponents to an average of just .194. True freshman LHP Thomas Burrows (3-1, 1.12) has been a bit of a revelation for the Tide this season, allowing only 2 earned runs in 16 innings of work over 11 bullpen appearances, striking out 17 and walking 5 while holding opponents to a paltry .120 batting average. Junior RHP Jay Shaw (1-1, 1.29) has been outstanding on the mound as well, also allowing just 2 earned runs in 14 innings pitched across 8 appearances. It goes without saying that an already offensively-challenged A&M lineup will have their work cut out for them against this Bama staff. Here's how the pitching compares between the 2 teams.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Tide will feature this weekend.
The Tide lineup is obviously dangerous when they are featuring their leading hitter across virtually all offensive categories in the 6 spot. The 1-6 spots in the lineup are all more than capable of causing problems for A&M pitchers, and even their 7-9 hitters have done a nice job of turning over the order and delivering in key spots when needed. Putting this together with how strong the Alabama pitching staff has been so far in 2014, this will be the toughest challenge for the Texas Aggies this weekend.
Alabama comes into this series playing some excellent baseball right now, while A&M sort of limps their way into this weekend in need of a big series win to get things back on track. The Aggies have historically been a pitching-strong baseball team, but they will be up against a team that has been superior on the mound so far this season. A&M has struggled mightily at the plate against top competition, really only managing to score runs against their opponents' Sunday starters in recent weeks.
I picked the Aggies to lose a series on the road last weekend at Georgia, one of the bottom teams in the SEC, and they went and did just that. While the Tide have been a bit of a different team on the road than they have at home, I have a very difficult time seeing any way that A&M manages to score enough runs this weekend to win this series.
In fact, I think Alabama will roll into College Station and sweep this A&M team based on how these 2 squads are playing baseball right now. I certainly would love to be wrong on this one.