The prototypical Friday night SEC pitcher is a powerhouse. He’s a potential first-round draft pick and a bona fide star who can set the tone for a series.
But he also has to be a grinder. Friday night pitchers can’t get shelled and forced out of the game early, exposing their bullpen to a long night of work with the rest of the weekend ahead.
Alabama at LSU
Schedule: Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
Records: Alabama 25-25 (6-18 SEC), LSU 28-20 (12-12 SEC)
TV: SEC Network (Saturday only)
Radio: 102.9 FM
Alabama’s Sam Finnerty hasn’t been the rocket-armed frontline starter that he regularly faces off against. But he has been resolute and inexhaustible for the Crimson Tide this spring. Alabama’s coaching staff knew he didn’t have the stuff that some SEC pitchers like Auburn’s Casey Mize or Florida’s Brady Singer.
“Sam throws a ton of strikes and he gives up some hits, but he doesn’t give up a bunch of extra-base hits,” coach Brad Bohannon said. “As soon as people get on base, he doesn’t try to dodge the bat, which is hard for a young pitcher to do. Going into the season we just knew what we were getting out of Sam.”
Finnerty’s earned run average of 4.82 ranks 40th among qualifying SEC pitchers this season. Opposing teams are batting .324 against him, but he’s minimized the damage. He’s given up 11 total walks and 23 extra base hits in 12 starts.
He only has 28 strikeouts, which ranks fifth among his teammates. But he leads the team with 74 2/3 innings pitched. That’s an average of about 6 1/3 innings per game. For comparison, Saturday pitcher Jake Walters has averaged just over 5 1/3 innings in his 12 starts.
“Sam has done a fabulous job of pitching deep into the game,” Bohannon said. “Any coach at the college level will tell you that if you have to go to the bullpen early in the first game of the series, that’s just like having bamboo shoved under your fingernails.”
Friday night’s 10th-inning loss to Mississippi State could have been one of those torture sessions but for Finnerty. Mississippi State scored five runs in the second inning, thanks partially to an error on a potential double play. That could have knocked some pitchers out of the game.
Finnerty returned and pitched into the eighth inning. He allowed one hit in the next five innings after giving up those five runs.
“After giving up a five spot in the second inning, your mindset kind of changes to ‘All right, I have to stay in this game as long as possible and keep our team in the game as long as possible, to save our bullpen and to have a chance to win at the end,’” Finnerty said. “Especially as the Friday night guy in the first game of the series, you have to keep your bullpen safe and have as many guys as possible toward the end of the weekend.”
Alabama did have a chance to win before Mississippi State scored two runs in the top of the 10th. His performance helped Alabama win on Saturday and hang in Sunday’s game with a mostly fresh bullpen, too.
“It was big for me as far as a confidence point,” Finnerty said.
He draws a likely matchup against LSU’s Zack Hess on Friday night in Baton Rouge. Hess is a 6-6 righty allowing opponents to hit .221 against him with 85 strikeouts.
One way or another, Finnerty will try to find a way to keep Alabama alive.
“We feel like he’s done a great job of poise and consistency, pitching deep into the game,” Bohannon said. “He’s been a big part of us pitching competitively throughout the year.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.