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June 3, 2014

Baseball: After tough loss, UA already looking ahead to 2015

Less than 24 hours since Mitch Gaspard's season came to a smarting end, 2015 was well underway.

Alabama suffered a painful exit in the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, Fla. on Monday, falling to Kennesaw State 4-2 in the winner-take-all region championship game.

By Tuesday, the UA Baseball offices inside Coleman Coliseum were in midseason form. All the coaches were there and met as a staff to discuss the year. The staff met with its players to review the season, talk about the future and pinpoint places to improve between now and the start of fall practice.

On Gaspard's desk was a freshly filled white three-ring binder, and on his lap was a legal pad with a list, in pencil, of what a 2015 Alabama roster may look like.

Opening day is roughly 250 days away.

"Maybe we'll take a day off Friday," Gaspard said, smiling uncertainly.

There is work to do following a 37-24 campaign Gaspard described as a "a bit of a roller coaster."

UA started 4-5, then won 24 of 30 games to take the outright lead in the SEC standings past the midway point of the conference season. From there the wheels fell off as the Crimson Tide lost 12 of its final 18, plummeting to No. 8 in the SEC.

The downward spiral seemed to be the overall destiny of Alabama's season when it lost to Kennesaw State 1-0 in the regional opener on Friday. But UA rallied from there, winning three straight - the first knocking out host Florida State - to set up Monday's game and, at the very least, enter the offseason with some positive momentum.

"I'm disappointed we didn't finish it off," said Gaspard, who just completed his fifth season as head coach. "But I think this group, too, has been kind of left standing there (in regional play) two years in a row and that has to continue to be the fuel that burns in you to get to that point again and go beyond. There's always motivation in different ways and I think that's something this group can use moving forward.

"I think with that, it's two-fold, the players and the coaches. On both sides of it, we really have to evaluate why some of those struggles happened through the years and what we can do to correct them. I think that's where it has to be a true, hard evaluation on both sides. Then we start to go to work and correct them."

Strides were made with starting pitching, which became UA's strong suit. That was most obvious this past weekend as Alabama's starting pitchers made five starts and combined to allow just four earned runs over 37 innings, good for a sterling 0.95 ERA. UA's batting average jumped slightly and power numbers were up.

Alabama spent the vast majority of the season among the top 25 nationally, reaching as high as No. 8 midway through the year.

The problems were easy to see as well. The bullpen was less effective down the stretch. UA's offense was wildly inconsistent, scoring one run or fewer 13 times. The team walked significantly less than it did in 2013 and scored 21 less runs despite a higher batting average and a jump from 26 home runs in 2013 to 42 in 2014.

"We always try to continue to evaluate what we are doing as a coaching staff, and there we've got to look at some areas that we can improve in as coaches and do a good job with that to put our team in better position to be successful," Gaspard said. "But I still think the program moved forward this year, but there's a lot of room for growth as well."

And that's why he's back to work. Gaspard will keep an eye on this week's Major League Baseball draft as some of his draft-eligible juniors and 2014 signees are expected to be selected, a fact that could affect that tidy penciled-in roster. He'll monitor his returnees as they participate in summer leagues across the country. And he'll continue to plot and plan for next year, trying to not leave too many days unturned.

"It was a really disappointing Monday for the group. But you can't go back and change anything at this point, and what we have to do is continue to have that fire burning," he said. "We still have a large number of this team back now with a lot of experience and I think the edges have been sharpened a little bit more and we've got to continue to grow. Grow as a program and as a team. I think if we can do that, we can keep working to get over that hump."

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

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