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May 1, 2014

Baseball: 2014 success makes final stretch crucial

It has been years since the final nine conference games have meant so much to the University of Alabama.

For the first time in head coach Mitch Gaspard's tenure, Alabama (30-15, 13-8 SEC) heads into its final three SEC series with a winning conference record and the SEC West division lead.

It hasn't won the West in seven seasons.

Alabama sits just two games back of Florida for the overall conference lead, and it controls its own destiny for the title. It hasn't won an SEC regular season title in 18 years.

The backstretch is here, and the SEC outright lead could be Alabama's if all things go well this weekend as a massive series against the No. 5-ranked Gators starts in Tuscaloosa at 6:35 Friday night.

"Really our message to the team has been as to embrace this opportunity that we have," Gaspard said. "We've done a good job to put ourselves in this position right now with three weekend series left, and we really want to embrace that opportunity moving forward."

Sitting at 13-8 in the toughest league in the country and ranked No. 12 nationally, Alabama is, at least to date, in the midst of its best season since 2006. That year, it won the SEC West at 20-10, hosted an NCAA Regional and came up one win of a trip to the College World Series.

Matching that type of success is very much in play. Alabama has used a steady pitching rotation, arguably the top freshman closer in the country in Thomas Burrows and a streaky, yet powerful lineup - it ranks second in the SEC in home runs (34) and third in slugging percentage (.399) and total bases (618) - to put itself in position.

For perspective on what kind of uptick 2014 has been, in the past 14 seasons, Alabama has won 16 SEC games or fewer 10 times. Even a sub-.500 finish to league play this year would get Alabama to 17-13. There's no doubt the team is enjoying a big year, but Gaspard and his players know that plenty of work remains.

It starts with a brutal schedule to end SEC play, one that began with last week's series at No. 9 South Carolina (Alabama took one of three games). UA hosts a Gator team (30-15, 15-6 SEC) that has won seven straight SEC games entering Friday. After that, it's a trip to play in a hostile environment at No. 8 LSU next weekend before ending the regular season at home against 2013 CWS participant and top 25 frequenter Mississippi State.

There's more at stake than SEC trophies, too. Alabama is in the mix to be one of 16 teams to host an NCAA Regional for the first time since that run in 2006. The RPI, an index factoring wins and strength of schedule among several things, is considered a key barometer when regional hosts are chosen. Alabama's RPI sits at No. 20 with almost limitless potential to improve considering the tough stretch to end the year.

"I think there's always some awareness when that comes up," Gaspard said of the chance to be a regional host. "But really all we can control is the next game and the next pitch we have to (make). As a coach, it's very obvious to all of us: If we take care of business these next three weekends, we are going to be in position to win a league, host a regional, to gain momentum going into postseason play."

While Florida paces the league, it has done so craftily, ranking in bottom half of the league in several major statistics including batting average (11th, .269), earned run average (8th, 3.23), hits allowed (9th, 392), opponent batting average (9th, .250) and home runs allowed (13th, 26).

"A really good Florida team that's coming in hot, they've swept the last two series back to back at home," Gaspard said. "So we know going into the weekend and moving forward in the SEC season that we've got to play good clean baseball throughout the field."

For the first time in years, crucial, season-changing business sits at Alabama's feet in May. This problem is welcomed with open arms.

"We're very excited all that hard work leading up in the fall has put us in this position," said Saturday's starting pitcher Justin Kamplain. He was in the seventh grade the last time UA won the SEC West and Age 3 when it won its last outright SEC regular-season title.

"We're very excited to see where this plays out."

Reach D.C. Reeves at [email protected] or 205-722-0196.

No. 5 Florida vs. No. 12 Alabama
Where: Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
Schedule: Today at 6:35 p.m.
Saturday at 3:05 p.m.
Sunday at 2:05 p.m.
Records: Alabama 30-15, 13-8 SEC; Florida 30-15, 15-6 SEC.
Radio: 99.1 FM
TV: CSS (Friday); CBS Sports Network (Saturday).



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