Jake Walters will either close out a game, or close out a series.
The University of Alabama baseball junior spent most of this season as the Crimson Tide’s No. 1 starter, but has been deployed in a new role in the last two weeks. He’s being held in reserve for the first two games of a weekend series to be used as a long reliever if needed to close out a tight game. If he’s not needed in that role, he starts the series finale.
“Coach came to me and said ‘How would you feel about sacrificing your starting role for the better of the team to help us get a win or two here and there?’” Walters said last week. “I said ‘I’m down for that. Anything for the guys.’”
The idea is that Walters could relieve starters Dylan Duarte or Nick Eicholtz if they can help Alabama build a lead. Walters, Alabama’s best starter, could throw a starter’s volume of pitches in relief to help the Crimson Tide hold on. The UA bullpen has struggled with depth this year. Holding Walters in reserve gives it some teeth.
That’s the structure Alabama has used in its last two series, against LSU and Mississippi State. In both cases, Alabama hasn’t had a situation to use Walters in the first two games, and he started the series finale.
That creates an interesting breakdown for his appearances this season. Of his 10 starts, five have been on Friday night or in the first game of a weekend series, three have come in the second game and the last two have been in the series finale.
The arrangement doesn’t require much adjustment for Walters. Because he may still end up pitching a significant amount in the first game of the series, he prepares during the week as if he’ll throw a starter’s load in the opener.
“If I don’t pitch in that game, I’ll throw a little touch and go just to keep my arm loose for the next day,” he said.
Walters threw a season-high 7 1/3 innings on Saturday against LSU. He left the game with a 3-3 tie, but Alabama went on to lose its 13th straight SEC game 4-3 in extra innings. Alabama still has three more weeks of the regular season.
“That’s the unselfishness of Jake Walters,” head coach Greg Goff said. “When you go to him and tell him that you have a shot to win the game, whether it’s Friday or Saturday. Then if we don’t throw him, then we’ll throw him on Sunday. We’d like to have a shot to win on Friday or Saturday. He’s just a great competitor and been a tremendous leader for our pitching staff.”