SEC baseball offers no rest, literally or figuratively. Alabama baseball is at the midway point of its 30-game conference schedule with no time off in the final five weeks of the season.
Alabama has faced four of the SEC’s top five offenses in the first half of the season. No. 5 Vanderbilt is the only team missing from that set; the Commodores arrive for three games this weekend.
Alabama vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt
Schedule: Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m.
Where: Sewell-Thomas Stadium
Records: Alabama 24-14 (4-11 SEC), Vanderbilt 28-9 (9-6 SEC)
Radio: 102.9 FM
TV: SEC Network (Saturday only)
“Everybody is good in this league and everybody can get you if you’re not prepared, if you don’t do things right, if you don’t execute,” pitching coach Jason Jackson said. “You certainly look at Vandy’s numbers and it’s a very good offensive team. They’re a heavy left handed lineup and it’s going to be a challenge for us but the guys will be ready.”
The Commodores’ team average of .309 is second in the league and 10th nationally; their .423 on base percentage leads the league and is fourth nationally.
It would be a precipitous matchup for any pitching staff, but particularly for Alabama’s. Vanderbilt has five lefty hitters among its seven position players with at least 100 at bats. Alabama has only two lefty pitchers who have played against SEC competition this season: junior Garret Rukes and sophomore Brock Guffey.
“It provides a little bit of a matchup disadvantage for us, just not being heavy left handed on the mound this year,” Jackson said.
It’s been a weakness for Alabama much of the season. Rukes and Guffey have pitched well, sporting earned run averages of 0.84 and 2.53, respectively. But there are only two of them. Junior Dylan Oliver, who has thrown just one inning in the last month, is the only other southpaw on the roster.
That has informed some of Alabama’s strategy on the roster this season. Rukes started all 10 SEC series in 2018 but has worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen this season. If he were used as a starter, there’d be almost no left handed pitching in the bullpen.
“That was a big piece of it,” Jackson said. “We needed to be able to match up if we needed to.”
He’s still played a significant role on the team, throwing 21 1/3 innings. He’s on pace to exceed the 30 innings he threw as a sophomore in 2018 after returning from Tommy John surgery.
“Last year, I felt great as far as pain-wise, but I think I took a really big step this year as far as learning how to pitch again,” Rukes said. “That’s one thing that took a little to come back. It still is coming back, but it’s something I feel a little better about.”
His left arm and ability to stretch out across multiple innings will make him a necessity for Alabama this weekend.
Alabama will need more than Rukes and Guffey to pitch 27 innings against the Commodores, though. It’s a difficult matchup no matter who takes the mound.
“You kind of look at the splits and you see who’s the best matchups,” Jackson said. “We have some guys that do really well against left handed hitters and some guys that don’t do as well against left handed hitters. You try to get the ones that do well out there as much as you can.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.