By Ben Harris
The Alabama Crimson Tide welcome an unfamiliar foe into a familiar, yet distinctly new venue to kick off the 2016 season. After playing 30 home games last year an hour from campus at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, Alabama returns to the newly renovated Sewell-Thomas Stadium on-campus for their first ever meeting against a surging Maryland program.
The return to more friendly confines comes just in time as the Crimson Tide open the season with seven of their first 12 opponents at least receiving votes in the nation’s top preseason polls. Of those seven, six made NCAA Regional appearances in 2015 and two (Maryland and LSU) reached the Super Regional.
Posting winning records in five of their first six years under head coach Mitch Gaspard, Alabama missed out on only their second NCAA tournament last year in his six seasons. They reached the Super Regional in 2010 and Regional round in 2011, 2013 and 2014. The 2015 MLB Draft stripped Alabama’s middle infield of significant experience and production in Mikey White and Kyle Overstreet. White led the team slashing (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) .339/.444/537, tacking on team-highs in runs (48), doubles (19) and walks (31) from the shortstop position. The 2015 All-SEC Defensive selection Overstreet left another hole at second base, ranking second on the team in runs (41) and RBIs (38).
Replacing the second round pick White at shortstop is Chandler Avant, a sophomore with considerable experience given his age. Avant started 57 games in 2015 at second base, third base and left field. Avant was a catalyst from the leadoff spot, tallying 66 hits – second most of any returning player – and swiping 11 bases in 14 attempts.
Will Haynie, the team’s catcher and leading home run hitter from a year ago (8), improved his numbers in every offensive category in 2015 as a sophomore. Senior Georgie Salem returns to patrol center field after stealing a team-leading 17 bases. Despite losing two draftees up the middle, Alabama will benefit from Salem’s senior campaign, another year under Haynie’s belt behind the dish and the addition of Avant as an everyday middle infielder.
On the mound, the Crimson Tide welcome back senior Ray Castillo in the bullpen, a pair of starters (Mike Oczypok and Jon Keller) sidelined by Tommy John injuries and third-year closer Thomas Burrows. Burrows has held opponents to a career .223 average, allowing just 57 hits in 74 career innings pitched and logging 18 saves.
After missing the tournament for 43 straight years, a young Maryland team travels to Tuscaloosa fresh off of back-to-back NCAA Super Regional runs. Of the 34 Terrapins on the roster 24 are underclassmen, at least partially due to a school-record eight players drafted in 2015. What their recent success does mean, however, is this young team has uncharacteristic postseason experience – only three players have witnessed a season that didn’t result in an NCAA tournament birth.
Terps Starter Mike Shawaryn is one of only seven players to receive consecutive preseason nods on the Golden Spikes Award watch list, and one of three on this year’s list who were named semifinalists in 2015.
While Maryland’s team batting average finished 10th-highest in the Big Ten last season, their team slugging percentage (.405) ranked fifth and on-base percentage (.368) ranked third. They ranked as a top-three Big Ten team in nearly every remaining offensive category: runs (second, 394), hits (third, 576), RBIs (third, 357), doubles (second, 114), triples (second, 19), home runs (second, 52), total bases (third, 884), walks (first, 284) and hit by pitches (first, 83).
Their fourth-ranked pitching staff led the way, holding opponents to the second lowest batting average in the conference (.236) while racking up a Big Ten-leading 549 strikeouts.
STARTING PITCHING MATCHUPS
FRI AT 7:30 PM
Jr. RHP Mike Shawaryn (2015: 13-2, 1.71) vs. Jr. RHP Geoffrey Bramblett (2015: 8-3, 3.81)
The Terps all-time wins leader gets the ball in his usual role as the team’s Friday starter, squaring off against fellow right-hander Geoffrey Bramblett. Shawaryn pitched brilliantly last season – a mainstay in a rotation that lost Taylor Stiles in April to injury – leading the Big Ten in wins and strikeouts.
Alabama’s 2015 wins-leader Bramblett will make the first Friday start of his career after primarily toeing the slab on Sundays last year. He went at least six innings in 11 of his 14 starts last season (excluding a tune-up start before the SEC Tournament). The Tide finished 8-2 in those starts, and went 9-5 in his series-ending Sunday starts. The junior saved his best for last, posting a career-best 10 strikeouts in a 1-run complete game victory over Ole Miss in the first round of the conference tournament.
SAT AT 4:30 PM
So. RHP Taylor Bloom (2015: 2-3, 4.01) vs. So. RHP Jake Walters (2015: 4-4, 3.36)
The sophomore Walters remains in his Saturday role, happy to return to “The Joe” after a tough season at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Walters went 2-2 at the Hoover Met with an 8.47 ERA in six games (four starts). On the road he pitched drastically better posting a 0.53 ERA in eight games.
Despite a 2-3 record last year, Taylor Bloom earned a spot as the Terps Saturday starter. He looks to build off a phenomenal summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League where he earned All-Star honors with a sub-two ERA, striking out 38 batters and surrendering just 2 walks in 30.2 innings. Bloom’s 6.1 inning, one-run one-hit outing clinched Maryland’s NCAA Los Angeles Regional win over UCLA.
SUN AT 1 PM
So. RHP Brian Shaffer (2015: 5-1, 4.57) vs. Jr. RHP Nick Eicholtz (2015: 3-1, 3.65)
In just five starts last season, Eicholtz posted a 2-1 record with one additional win coming out of the bullpen. The junior has held left-handed hitters to a .193 average for his career while righties haven’t fared much better, hitting just .219. He enters the 2016 season with a 6-3 career record in 27 appearances and 75.2 innings pitched.
Brian Shaffer trailed only Shawaryn in starts last season and earned a spot in the weekend rotation as the spring drew to a close. The sophomore posted a 5-1 record with wins against Appalachian State, James Madison, Delaware, Towson and Illinois.