Mitch Gaspard did not have much of a choice as he entered yet another team meeting. This was the time for a cold look at reality; they believed they had a good team, but the time to play like one was running out.
On May 12, 2010, the University of Alabama baseball team lost to Samford 8-7; it was the Crimson Tide’s second loss to Samford that season. That same team would go on to the championship game of the SEC Tournament, a win in the Atlanta Regional and fall three runs short of a trip to Omaha. Attempts to relive the 2010 UA baseball season by those that played and coached it proved how memorable it was.
“There was so much that happened that year, when it was over you took a deep breath and you go, ‘My God, if every year is like this, it’s going to be insane,’” Gaspard, UA’s coach at the time, said.
The 2010 Tide had an offseason to shake off a bitter ending to 2009. It ended its final regular season coached by Jim Wells at 37-17, entering the SEC Tournament fourth in the league. As the calendar turned from regular season to postseason, the momentum disappeared: UA went 0-2 in the SEC Tournament, 0-2 in the Clemson Regional and its season was over. It lost a couple of starting outfielders and two starting pitchers as the program was handed over from Wells to Gaspard, but it kept its infield in tact: first baseman Clay Smith, second baseman Ross Wilson, shortstop Josh Rutledge and third baseman Jake Smith.
Early, everything worked for the 2010 Tide: they won 16 of their first 17 games, the last two of that run being the first two games of the Vanderbilt series that opened SEC play. When that game ended, outfielder Taylor Dugas was hitting .448 and Rutledge was hitting .394. The lone loss was a 7-6 loss at College of Charleston, a team that would make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection out of the Southern Conference and miss a Super Regional appearance in extra innings.
Even after losing the final game of the Vanderbilt series, UA was ranked in all five major college baseball polls, as high as No. 16 in both the USA Today coaches’ poll and Collegiate Baseball’s rankings.
“I remember a lot of things from that season, but starting 16-1 is definitely one of them,” Dugas said. “If you ask any other guys from that team, we really felt like we wouldn’t lose. Starting so hot, the confidence of that team was through the roof, especially at that time.
“Then baseball started happening.”
From March 21 to April 18, UA went 6-14. It was swept twice in SEC play in that stretch, by Arkansas and LSU, it lost to UAB twice by a combined score of 17-8 and took the first of its two losses to Samford, 7-5 at home.
By the end of that stretch, UA was not ranked in any poll, and would not be again until after the SEC Tournament.
The schedule would make the situation more dire. UA swept a Mississippi State team that went 6-24 that season, just to meet South Carolina (national champions that season) and Florida (a College World Series participant), losing both series. The result was taking a 10-14 record into its final two SEC series, at home against Ole Miss and on the road against Tennessee. Ole Miss arrived in Tuscaloosa with the SEC Pitcher of the Year: Drew Pomeranz, since a World Series winner and All-Star in his nine-year MLB career. Pomeranz, predictably, stifled UA for five innings, tallying nine strikeouts as Ole Miss won 5-4.
Gaspard walked into the dugout the ensuing day knowing the situation.
“This is it. If we don’t win out here, it doesn’t look like we’re going to make the tournament,” he thought.
From there, the two keys to the season began to show themselves: Jimmy Nelson and Nathan Kilcrease.
Gaspard looked to Nelson as a key piece for the starting rotation entering the season, having lost the starting pitching it had from the previous season. Nelson’s talent was obvious — he would be drafted in the second round after this season, which he’s turned into six seasons in MLB — and they needed it to come through.
It did. On that Saturday against Ole Miss, Nelson threw a four-hit, one-run complete game; his next start was also a complete game, a win over Tennessee. His third consecutive complete game was a five-hit, one-run gem against Auburn to start the SEC Tournament run.
“One of the most memorable games of my life was that 9 a.m. game against Auburn,” Dugas said. “The crowd, there’s no telling how many people were there. People were everywhere, it was 9 a.m. and the place was rocking. Alabama fans, Auburn fans everywhere.”
Kilcrease added, “We rode the coattails of Jimmy Nelson.”
Kilcrease himself also proved to be critical to postseason success. He started the season at the back of the bullpen, collecting four saves as he went. Gaspard and the staff felt like he was good enough to start, but feared for the strength of the bullpen if Kilcrease wasn’t in it. Later in the season, Smith — already starting at third base — emerged as a solid closer (six saves), giving the coaching staff liberty to hand Kilcrease the ball as a starter. (Smith’s presence on that team was a bit of serendipity: he was having an excellent 2009 season until an ankle injury in the SEC Tournament; Dugas believes without that ankle injury, Smith is not at UA in 2010.)
Kilcrease was on the mound — in the midst of a nine-inning start — when the PA announcer in Knoxville revealed a Kentucky loss, a result that guaranteed Alabama’s spot in the SEC Tournament. (It was only an eight-team tournament at the time.) A couple of weeks later, Kilcrease would be the star of the Atlanta Regional.
Kilcrease got the start and the win in the opening game against Elon. A loss to Georgia Tech would put UA against the wall, but two elimination game wins over Mercer and Georgia Tech put UA in a winner-take-all Monday game with the hosting Yellow Jackets. Kilcrease told Gaspard he could pitch; a five-run top of the fourth inning put UA ahead 8-6, and Gaspard called on Kilcrease.
“About the sixth or seventh inning, I go down to him, he says, ’Stop coming down here, I’m good,’” Gaspard said.
Later, with Nelson warming up in the bullpen, Rutledge approached Gaspard asking him to leave Kilcrease in the game, knowing he would win it for them. Gaspard felt the same way, but pitch count was a concern: Kilcrease threw 99 pitches in his start on Friday, and his Monday outing would ultimately last 103 pitches. A quick eighth inning made Gaspard’s decision for him: they were going to win or lose with Kilcrease.
They would win, 10-8, sending them to the same place where their 2009 season ended. Their 2010 season would also end in Clemson, South Carolina, but not before one final Nelson gem won UA game one of that Super Regional. UA’s potential walk-off home run fell a few feet short, sending Clemson to Omaha, but it would prove to be the lone season in Gaspard’s tenure that made it to a Super Regional.
It was also his most memorable.
“That was my favorite season of any season I’ve had,” Kilcrease said.