Garret Rukes wasn’t the most likely candidate to lead the University of Alabama baseball team to its first shutout of the season.
Junior Jake Walters and senior Nick Eicholtz, both returning starters in the weekend rotation, have shut down SEC opponents before. They’re the Crimson Tide’s top arms. Rukes, a freshman, had only pitched in three games this season before Tuesday.
The lefty went eight innings, allowing two hits and two walks to help Alabama (10-6) shut out Eastern Illinois (1-14) 5-0 at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
“If he doesn’t go out there and have a lot of poise and competitive spirit on a cold day, then we may not have the same outcome,” head coach Greg Goff said. “Just really pleased with the way he came out today and threw strikes, mixed the ball in and out, had a great changeup. Just a tremendous effort from a freshman today.”
Rukes’ eight innings are the most for any Alabama pitcher this season. So were his 106 pitches. He hadn’t thrown more than 63 in any of his first three games. He retired the first 11 batters and carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
“I had a lot of good fastball command,” Rukes said. “I felt most of the day I was able to put it wherever I wanted to, and then the changeup was there. Was able to get a lot of movement on both of those.”
The Alabama offense didn’t bury Eastern Illinois but it kept throwing dirt on the Panthers all day. All nine starters reached base, and UA had base runners on in each of the first seven innings. Alabama scored two runs in the second inning and added to its lead gradually the rest of the way.
Designated hitter Cody Henry led off the sixth inning with a solo home run. He was 2-2 on the day with two walks and two RBIs after going 2-2 with a walk and an RBI in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader.
“I’ve just been hitting in the cages and stuff, starting to feel my swing out finally,” Henry said. “It’s finally starting to come together a little bit. Really trying to get a good barrel on the ball, put it in play and eliminate strikeouts. Everybody is really putting that together, too. The whole team has been doing a good job.”
That consistent pressure forced Eastern Illinois to use seven pitchers, none of which threw more than two innings.
“I thought our lineup one through nine was pretty solid today,” Goff said. “It never was stagnant. I felt like every time we came up to hit, we had a shot to get somebody on base.”
Every time the Alabama offense kept chipping away at the Panthers’ pitchers, Rukes came back and kept their hitters off the scoreboard. Senior Mike Oczypok came in and pitched the ninth inning to secure the win. Before that, it was the freshman’s day.
“The one thing I’ve really been trying to focus on is not letting the stage of it being college baseball get to me,” Rukes said. “It’s still 60 feet, six inches away. Still the same game I’ve been playing since I was four or five years old. Try to not change too many things up.”