Brad Bohannon carries himself differently these days.
Alabama’s baseball coach has been in the cellar of the SEC with his team, finishing last and tied for last in his two seasons in charge. He and everyone in his locker room believe 2020 is the season that changes, on the back of one of the league’s more experienced lineups and a pitching staff that blends 2019 experience with talented newcomers.
The season begins with a three-game series against Northeastern, starting Friday at 3 p.m.
“I keep telling everyone we got a really good team, I’m not afraid to say that publicly. We have a very good baseball team,” Bohannon said. “What does that mean in the Southeastern Conference, when half of the league is ranked in the top 10? If you want to be a top-half of the league team, you got to be a top 10 caliber team.
“With the talent and intangibles we have, I’m not going to put any limits on them.”
That optimism is founded in two returning outfielders, right fielder Tyler Gentry and left fielder T.J. Reeves, last year’s top two home run hitters. They led UA with 13 and nine homers, respectively, while no other UA player had more than four.
In front of them, Drew Williamson (first base), Kolby Robinson (shortstop) and Brett Auerbach (utility) all return after playing at least 54 games last season, all of them doing so with batting averages of .270 or better.
Catcher Sam Praytor is back in the fold — although his status for opening weekend is in question after jamming a thumb sliding into a base in a preseason scrimmage. His promising freshman season was supposed to lead to a breakout 2019, but one that was interrupted by an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery. When he does return, UA anticipates he’ll do so with a bang.
The recruiting class, ranked 15th nationally by Baseball America, will have most of its 2020 impact on the pitching staff, but it is also expected to chip in some potentially productive bats: second baseman Jim Jarvis, outfielder Owen Diodati or utility man Myles Austin, among others.
“We should have a lot of fun and get a lot of wins,” Reeves said.
The role of freshmen in the batter’s box is yet to be determined, but there is already a role for freshmen in the pitching staff. One (Connor Prielipp) is going to get the start on opening day; another (Antoine Jean) will start two days later, with sophomore Connor Shamblin in between.
They will be followed by the more experienced parts of the pitching staff: William Freeman, Garret Rukes, Tyler Ras, Dylan Smith, Jacob McNairy and others. Last year’s pitching staff finished eighth in the SEC in earned run average (4.27), but just a run behind league-leading Texas A&M at 3.21; if a combination of more experience and talented youth improves the staff, Bohannon’s confidence is more than justified.
“I think the staff has made a big jump,” Ras said. “We have a lot of good arms that can come in: left and right, a bunch of different looks for hitters we’re going to face this year.”
That talent has a lot of droughts to bust, the first being a SEC Tournament appearance for the first time since 2016. As Bohannon (correctly) pointed out, making the SEC Tournament is more than proof of being in the top 12 of a 14-team league; given the state of the SEC today, it’s an indication of a top 30 team nationally.
The path to that SEC Tournament bid starts Friday. They hope it’s a path to more than Hoover.
“We have a bunch of kids that have grown up going to games at the SEC Tournament; I think this group would tell you that their sights are higher than that,” Bohannon said. “Hoover is an awesome experience, it should be a goal for every group in our league to get there — and if you’re good enough to get there, you’re probably good enough to not only get in a regional but even win it.
“I think we all expect to be in Hoover and I think we all expect to play well when we get there.”