Alabama head baseball coach Brad Bohannon often tells his players to force him to play them: perform so well in practices and scrimmages that he has no choice but to put your name on the lineup card. Connor Prielipp did it, and probably had to perform better than most to attain that level.
Prielipp, a freshman left-handed pitcher, will get the ball as UA’s starting pitcher for its opening day game against Northeastern Friday at 3 p.m. His talent and demeanor did not make the decision a surprise, but performing well enough to make Bohannon choose him is an impressive feather in Prielipp’s cap. Sophomore Connor Shamblin will start the Saturday game and freshman Antoine Jean will get the ball on Sunday.
“I really had no interest whatsoever in starting a freshman opening day, but I think if I didn’t I’d have 35 kids in the dugout looking at me funny,” Bohannon said. “He’s really just had a tremendous fall and preseason, has separated himself from a stuff perspective and has really performed. He is a freshman, but he’s a mature and confident young man. He’ll do a great job.”
Bohannon wanted to avoid putting a freshman on the mound on opening day to keep them out of the big moment. The first game of the season is big enough, but if Prielipp keeps the Friday night starter job through the regular season, he’ll pitch in front of 10,000 people on the road against Arkansas and LSU; those stadiums hold more people than the entire population of his hometown of Tomas, Wisconsin.
Yet, Prileipp forced Bohannon to pitch him. Prielipp was highly thought of in the talent evaluation world — just outside of the top 200 prospects in the nation according to Perfect Game and a top 20 left-handed pitcher — and his preseason performance lived up to the billing.
“He’s got a gift,” catcher Sam Praytor said earlier in the preseason. “He’s the real deal. He was just born with this great left arm, throws the crap out of it.”
Bohannon added, “He’s thrown a ton of strikes, he’s got a lot of swing and miss, multiple pitches for strikes. The amount of innings that he’s pitched since he’s been here, you look at the strikeouts and hit and walks per innings pitched, it’s pretty impressive. Hopefully he can have that kind of success against the teams that we’re playing.”
Deciding on Shamblin and Jean behind Prielipp was not easy — and is not final. UA had no shortage of starting pitching candidates, and the ones not starting against Northeastern will likely get a chance later on.
“Most young pitchers just aren’t in shape to throw 90 pitches the first time out,” Bohannon said. “I’m not sure I’m ready for those guys to throw 80 or 90 innings this year, so they’ll all be a little bit shorter leashes and like I said, the real strength to this pitching staff is the length of it.
“We don’t have huge separation from whoever your second, third, fourth guy is to whoever you think your 10th, 11th or 12th guy is. When that’s the case, there’s no reason to extend anybody any time before you have to.”
There is benefit to that for the pitchers that are not starting this weekend but battled for starting jobs through the preseason. Pitchers such as Tyler Ras, William Freeman, Dylan Smith, Jacob McNairy and Garret Rukes will have chances at extended outings as the starters are not pitching bulk innings to start.
Those outings could put some of them in starting roles before conference play begins. But UA would benefit if its rotation stays this way because it could have veterans transitioning to the bullpen: Freeman is a senior, Rukes is a junior and Ras threw 37 innings as a freshman last season.
“All three of those guys that we’re starting pitched well in the preseason, along with some other guys, so at the end of the day, (pitching coach Jason Jackson) and I decided, ‘Let’s start some of the younger guys early and since we don’t have a lot of experience someone on the mound, some of the older kids that pitched more last year, use them maybe when the game’s a little bit tighter early on,’” Bohannon said.
“I’m certainly not not married to that rotation: I told the kids yesterday that we’re gonna have a lot of guys have extended outings.”
That experience in the bullpen could force youth in the starting rotation, with a sophomore bookended by freshmen. Teammates don’t have concern for that rookies of this weekend’s rotation, Prielipp and Jean.
“They’re all mature beyond their years,” third baseman Brett Auerbach said. “Say they walk the first guy in four pitches, it doesn’t fluster them. They’re going to attack the next guy and that’s huge. Especially when the lights are on and you have 5,000 people screaming, you have to lock in and do your job no matter what’s happened in the past.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson