Brad Bohannon knew Garret Rukes was someone who had to pitch more. The preseason results proved it, and two innings through Alabama baseball’s first seven games was not reflective of his success to date.
Bohannon fixed that on Tuesday, giving Rukes room to go 3 2/3 innings — and giving him the crucial juncture of the game.
Rukes entered against UT Martin with one out in the bottom of the third and runners on second and third, the runner on second representing the tying run. Rukes kept that tying run from scoring and shut the Skyhawks down for another 3 innings, getting the win as the Crimson Tide won 10-5.
“He’s pitched a lot in his career and had a good career here, so he’s somebody we’ve always had a lot of confidence in and if he keeps pitching like he pitched today, his role is going to grow a lot in a hurry,” Bohannon, UA’s coach, said.
Rukes got out of that jam by getting a groundout that scored a run before ending the inning with a flyout to center field. The run was charged to starter Dylan Smith, who allowed seven hits, a walk and four runs in his 2 1/3 innings.
Being thrown into that game situation was a sharp contrast from the season to date for Rukes, whose two appearances were one-inning stints in the eighth inning of a 8-0 win and the ninth inning of a 10-3 win. The dominance that followed resulted in Rukes’ longest outing since March 19, 2017.
“That’s what we always prepare for mentally,” Rukes said. “In the fall and spring scrimmages, sometimes they’ll throw us into innings with runners on second and third, nobody out and get out of it, that kind of deal. That really helps you slow it down when you’re out there, and that’s the biggest thing, just not letting the game speed up on you.”
After preserving UA’s lead, Rukes (1-0) went on a tear. The three scoreless innings that followed saw him allow one hit and one walk, plus a career-high six strikeouts. He did it by pounding the strike zone: 16 of his first 20 pitches were strikes.
“I always try to attack hitters and go right after them, smother them with strikes,” Rukes said. “My fastball command today was probably the best it’s been. I just felt all night long I could put it wherever I wanted to.”
Rukes was quickly supported with a run in the bottom of the third, on a Jim Jarvis single, and two more in the fourth when sophomore left fielder T.J. Reeves hit into a bases-loaded error. Freshman first baseman Zane Denton padded the lead with a two-run single in the sixth.
Senior utility man Brett Auerbach, playing third base on Tuesday, continued his hot start to the season with two hits and two walks, upping his average to .384 and his on-base percentage to .540. He also stole a base, his seventh stolen base of the season and sixth consecutive game with a stolen bag.
“Brett’s a pretty special player,” Bohannon said. “He’s got a lot of freedom as a player on our team because he’s earned it. He’s really confident and really aggressive on the bases. He makes good decisions when he’s on the bases and I hope some of our younger players that are really athletic can learn from watching him on the bases. He’s really good out there.”
Freshman designated hitter Owen Diodati hit his fourth home run of the season in the second inning, regaining the team lead from catcher Sam Praytor after his three home runs in the UNLV series over the weekend. Prayor was not silent on Tuesday, notching his first double of the season against UT Martin (4-4).
UA (8-0) plays another midweek game on Wednesday against Middle Tennessee with Will Freeman as its projected starter. His lone appearance of the season was a three-inning start on Feb. 19 against Alabama State, an outing Bohannon hoped would be longer but was cut short by the need to get other pitchers some routine work. Bohannon anticipates Freeman will have a longer outing against the Blue Raiders (3-4).
“He’s going to start and probably go a little bit longer than he did last time,” Bohannon said. “We have some other guys that have to get some work, so there’s always kind of two parts to it. I would hope he pitches well and goes a little deeper (Wednesday).”