BIRMINGHAM – The statistics show that Matt Foster only spent one season pitching at the University of Alabama. That was 2016, after spending two seasons at Gulf Coast State College and before spending the last two seasons playing minor league baseball.
But Foster has more of a connection to Alabama than one line of pitching stats. The right-hander grew up in Valley, Ala. Auburn was closer to home, but he grew up following the Crimson Tide.
“Once I had enough sense in my head to choose the right one, I went with Alabama,” he said.
Now he’s back in his home state with the Birmingham Barons. Two years of playing minor league baseball all around the country led him back to Alabama. He began in rookie league ball in Arizona in 2016, then Montana. He spent 2017 mostly on the east coast in single-A ball, where he began this spring. He was called up to Birmingham on June 21.
“I was really excited,” Foster said. “I had been waiting all year to hopefully get moved up to Birmingham and finally did. I love it.”
It’s only been a few weeks, but Foster has been back to Tuscaloosa a few times after his call up. Tuscaloosa was good to him during his one season at Alabama: He led the bullpen with 40 innings pitched in 2016, posting a 2.92 ERA and a 5-3 record with two saves. He and lefty Tommy Burrows formed a one-two punch in the back of the bullpen to close down games.
Burrows is now in the Atlanta Braves organization. Foster is one of four Alabama baseball alums sitting with double-A teams. Kyle Overstreet, who played second base in Tuscaloosa, is now a catcher for the San Antonio Missions, the double-A team for the San Diego Padres. Infielder Mikey White is with the Midland Rockhounds, affiliated with the Oakland Athletics. Right-hander Spencer Turnbull is with the Detroit Tigers’ double-A affiliate, the Erie Sea Wolves.
No Alabama baseball player has broken into the majors full-time since Jimmy Nelson arrived late in the 2013 season with the Brewers. Foster, now 23 years old, has as good a chance as any player to be the next.
“Hopefully we’ll break that streak here in a couple years,” he said. “It would be nice for one of us.”
He’s acquitted himself well so far in his first stint in Birmingham. He’s posted a 2.70 ERA in six appearances entering Tuesday night. He hadn’t allowed an earned run in four straight appearances. He has 119 strikeouts and a 1.57 ERA in 92 career innings in the minors. Opponents are only batting .185 against him, and .240 in his short stint in Birmingham.
Foster said former Alabama pitching coach Dax Norris and volunteer assistant Nathan Kilcrease both helped him be prepared for a professional career.
“They all had a lot of knowledge about pitching beyond college,” he said. “I still use some of that stuff now.”
He had mostly been a starter when he arrived to Alabama but moved to the bullpen there. That’s where the White Sox have kept him.
Pitching in relief at Alabama helped him transition, but there was still a learning curve. He eventually added a changeup to the mid-90s fastball and slider that he mostly relied on earlier in his career.
“I went to the fall league and got hit around a little bit,” he said. “They’d been on me about throwing a changeup, and my stubborn self would never do it. I started doing it this year and it’s been really effective.”
His family gets the chance to see him play more often now that he’s close to home. Others have come to Birmingham too, including his high school coach.
Tuscaloosa remains nearby as well. Foster has trained there during the offseason in the last two years, and has met with Alabama’s new coaching staff. When he finds the time, he likes to get to Lake Nicol or get a meal at Jalapenos.
“I love it here,” he said. “I’ll be actually going back (to Tuscaloosa) this fall.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.