Tennessee will want to take its swings when it gets the chance against Alabama this weekend. There might not be a second chance.
No Alabama reliever has been used twice against the same team so far this season. No pitcher has come out of the bullpen twice in the same weekend series or had to pitch on back-to-back days. Nearly every pitcher has had at least two full days of rest between appearances this season.
“That’s huge,” sophomore reliever Deacon Medders said. “It’s nice to come in and be fresh, then get your rest after. They’ve done a great job with everybody with that. Nobody is ever really fatigued when they come in and pitch. They’ve got a great plan and it’s been working out well for us.”
Alabama at Tennessee
Schedule: Friday at 5:30 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
Records: Alabama 16-6 (1-2 SEC), Tennessee 13-9 (1-2 SEC)
TV: SEC Network (Saturday and Sunday only)
Radio: 102.9 FM
The results have been good: Alabama’s relievers have allowed just 18 earned runs across 97 1/3 innings for a 1.94 ERA. The bullpen has been a key piece to Alabama’s 16-6 start.
“There’s such a big difference between one inning versus a full time through the order versus (hitters) getting a second or third look, whether that’s in one game or later in the weekend,” coach Brad Bohannon said. “I think that’s been a small piece of why our bullpen has been so good this year.”
There have been two instances in which relievers appeared with just one full day of rest, but both come with caveats. Medders threw on Wednesday, March 7 against Southern Miss, then again on Friday, March 9. That appearance came in the second game of a doubleheader, after the bullpen had already worked one game without him. Junior Dylan Duarte pitched one inning on Wednesday, March 14 against Alabama A&M, then three innings on Friday, March 16 against Georgia. He only came on after the game went to extra innings. Neither occurred in the course of normally scheduled nine-inning games.
That’s quite a departure from 2017. Garrett Suchey, the Crimson Tide’s workhorse reliever, pitched twice on the same weekend five times. Mike Oczypok threw twice in a series six times. Davis Vainer pitched on back-to-back days twice, and also appeared in both games of a doubleheader once. Zac Rogers pitched multiple times in a weekend twice.
Pitching coach Jason Jackson builds the schedule for Alabama’s pitchers. The even workload was built partially by design, but has also been something that the coaching staff has decided to roll with.
“We had such limited opportunities to see some of our kids throw to hitters,” Bohannon said. “I really wanted to use the first four weeks going into league play to give all those relievers a lot of opportunity, and they’ve pitched well. … You kind of have that ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.”
Hitters have a better chance of timing pitchers or finding patterns and tendencies if they face them multiple times. Pitchers wear down the more they’re used, both in the short-term and long term. Throwing fewer innings helps them stay healthy.
“If you face a team twice in a weekend, your stuff probably isn’t as sharp on Sunday as it is on Friday night,” Medders said.
Four of Alabama’s relievers haven’t allowed an earned run this season, and three more have ERAs of 1.00 or lower. That will likely change as SEC play continues, but it’s helped Alabama early on. The bullpen will be fresh again after two full days off when Alabama arrives in Knoxville on Friday.
Bohannon said the Crimson Tide will have to lean more heavily on some of its top bullpen arms as the season continues. Some players will eventually have to pitch with less rest. But he’ll avoid doing that if possible.
“We’ve been healthy enough and we have enough options where JJ has done just a great job of getting guys in and out of games and trying to put them in roles where they can be successful,” Bohannon said.
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.