Joe Breaux rounded first base after his first hit in an Alabama uniform and watched the winning run cross the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Then he watched the Crimson Tide baseball team’s dugout empty as teammates came running to mob him. One brought the plastic water cooler and dumped the contents over his head.
The Crimson Tide celebrated a 6-5 walk-off victory over Valparaiso on Saturday at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. It secured the opening series of the season, but Alabama – a team that struggled to a 19-34-1 record last season – reacted as if it was much bigger.
So when the junior college transfer from the Houston area drove a pitch into right field to complete a come-from-behind win in a downpour that improved UA’s record to 2-0, Breaux, Alabama’s second baseman, expected an excited reaction.
“I was already wet so I was like bring on the ice, let’s go,” he said.
Brad Bohannon, in his first season as Alabama’s coach and the program’s third head coach in as many seasons, didn’t discourage the outburst of joy.
“I want the kids to have fun. Winning’s fun, winning’s hard. They keep winning, we’ll keep having fun,” he said.
It was the kind of victory that could serve Alabama well as the season progresses. Alabama briefly fell behind Valpo in Friday’s season opener, but surged back for an easy 14-run victory. UA had to scratch and scrape for this one.
“I think games like this are good for any team, especially in the Southeastern Conference,” Bohannon said. “I mean, how many SEC games are tied or within one run in the sixth or seventh inning? I think any team has to be in these situations and have success in these situations so that when you’re in them more frequently you’ll have this catalogue in the background of, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this boat before and it’s gone our way.’
“It was a good win for us. I was really pleased with the way that our kids competed. I thought when we got down big early the dugout stayed really positive, and when the game was tight late I don’t think we played tight.”
Valpo took the lead with a run in the top of the first inning. Second baseman Chase Dawson led off the contest with a single and scored on Blake Bilinger’s double to right field.
The Crimson Tide loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning but managed just one run when designated hitter Cody Henry drew a walk.
The Crusaders grabbed the lead again in the top of the second when Dawson doubled in a pair of runs to make it 3-1. Valpo increased the margin with two more runs in the top of the fourth, with center fielder Jayden Eggimann and Dawson each singling in a run.
Alabama didn’t fold. Catcher Matt Malkin led off the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run, and third baseman Cobie Vance cranked a two-run shot to left field after Walker McCleney’s leadoff walk in the sixth to cut the margin to 5-4.
Heavy, intermittent rain started to fall in the eight inning as Alabama rallied. Two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases with two outs and Henry was hit by a pitch to tie it.
Another hit batter started off Alabama in the bottom of the ninth. Keith Holcombe, a Hillcrest High School product who also plays football, entered and beat out a bunt single to put pinch runner Connor Stutts in scoring position on second base. With two outs, Breaux singled to give UA its only hit in 13 tries with a runner in scoring position. Alabama stranded 14 baserunners.
“I think for a game-and-a-half we’ve swung at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. We’ll get better at that,” Bohannon said.
Alabama starter Jake Walters lasted five innings, giving up five runs on nine hits with two strikeouts and a walk.
Kyle Cameron, a redshirt sophomore from Hale County High School who sat out most of last season battling a medical condition, came to the rescue. The right-hander pitched 2 2/3 shutout innings, scattering four hits with two strikeouts.
“It felt awesome,” he said “You know, it’s been almost a year since I actually competed in a game, and just getting back to be 100 percent heathy and first outing of the year I felt really good. Just really excited.”
Lefty reliever Dylan Duarte pitched 1 1/3 innings of no-hit ball for the win. Luke VanLanen took the loss for Valpo.
Alabama will go for the series sweep today at 1 p.m.